“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.

Archaeology Field Kit Update

So I’m moving out of my storage unit in three hours, trying to finish a presentation for my department, and jet lagged beyond belief…why not blog? In light of John’s nice post about his broken trowel (psst, get a WHS next time) and Terry Brock’s love of kit nerdery, I thought I’d update a bit about the tools of the trade. Sorry for the bad photos–I was in a hurry to pack everything in England.

This past year in Qatar I made a few needed adjustments. My old field boots died after many years of service and I wanted a pair of boots that would last just as long as the last pair. It’s just wasteful to get disposable shoes that you have to replace all the time. On Michael Smith’s excellent advice, I bought a pair of Red Wing chukkas for the field. I have a pair of steel-toed work boots that I use on commercial sites, but the Red Wings are nice to wear in the desert and are okay for walking around in as well. There is a substantial downside though–they have to be regularly oiled and polished.  An added bonus for archaeology is that they have virtually no tread and so you can sneak in and out of a clean trench without leaving a trace. They still seem to have a decent amount of grip though–I was hiking on exposed rock ridges in the Rocky Mountains and they didn’t let me down. I bought a size too small and they’ve stretched out nicely.

While most archaeologists will tell you that it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen, I don’t really hear much about another piece of vital protection: a good “real” pair of sunglasses. I love cheap thrift store sunglasses, but they are actually a very bad idea if you are out in the sun for any length of time. While price is not always an indicator of how well the sunglasses will protect you, try to go for sunglasses that are made for skiing or snowboarding with 100% UV filter and polarizing lenses. These Von Zipper sunglasses have both of those and are “impact resistant”–they’ve fallen off my head many times and have endured a lot of general abuse. They were also big enough to serve as goggles during sandstorms–at least until I managed to get my real goggles on my head.

My old stationery bag was also on the way out. The zipper had started to rust and rip free of the metal mesh. I find that metal mesh bags work the best for stationery. You can see through them and the dirt just falls through. They are a bit of an oddity though–my last bag came with a package of pantyhose and my new bag on the right (given to me by my wonderful in-laws) had Body Shop shampoo in it. After all of this product placement I think I should get sponsored or something. Too bad I’m too lazy to set up affiliate links.

Sadly I left my trowel on the top of a wall in Qatar–the second one I’ve lost this year.  Nothing like showing up to excavations with a shiny new trowel to make you look like a noob. Oh well.