Suppressing Archaeological Data

This last week, I've heard a story from a colleague about an archaeological project in the Eastern Mediterranean who has been denied permission to study unpublished finds from their own excavation and survey. It seems like a strange story, but from the various accounts, it seems to be legitimate. The project apparently violated some political etiquette in host country and, in response to the ensuing political tumult has been asked not to ask for permission to study a group of finds.

When I first heard this, I was pretty outraged. After all, the project and its directors, participants, and resources had gone to some length to produce this material in an archaeologically responsible way, and now, from what I understood, they were being asked to do something that was pretty irresponsible — namely leave this material unstudied and unpublished. On the other hand, I recognized the right (let's say) and, more importantly, the responsibility of the home country to manage its archaeological resources in a way that made sense to the host country. And while the recent volume on Archaeological Ethnographies tended to portray archaeologists as having a certain advantageous position in respect to the local communities where they do their work, I also recognized that the archaeological establishing (government agencies with their political entanglements) exert a tremendous influence on how both foreign and local archaeologists conduct their work. After all, we've read enough of Y. Hamilakis other work to understand that many Mediterranean countries see archaeology as a discipline and a practice as having important nationalist goals. So, asking a project to suppress a particular body of archaeological data in order to maintain political peace or to ensure the continued vitality of a particular nationalistic argument is well within the rights of an archaeological bureaucracy in the host country.

After all, archaeological politics and practice always involve, to some extent, the suppression of archaeological data. Any foreign project in the eastern Mediterranean has limitations imposed on their work. No project, for example, can ask to survey as much of the landscape as they need until they have satisfied their research questions. Most project have to work in a designated survey area, established before the beginning of archaeological fieldwork, and independent, at least to some extent, from the results of the fieldwork. Excavations this is even more obvious. The politics of acquiring land, the responsibilities and resources for curation, and the limited number of field permits always shape the design of the project. In most cases, then, archaeological data is shaped by practical and political concerns and negotiated between the foreign project and the home country.

At the same time, projects regularly suppress certain results from their fieldwork. I know of several survey projects, for example, that have limited their collection to material from certain chronological periods. The results, from what I understand about survey, is not that no material from the later or earlier periods is collected — it would be impossible to only collect material from a particular period — but that artifacts from earlier or later periods are simply not studied. In the context of excavation, the practice of suppressing material from certain periods is even more common. A project will often choose to publish certain layers, deposits, buildings, or features in great detail and not necessary publish other parts of the projects. In "the bad old days," this accounted for the practice of digging through the Modern, Byzantine, and sometimes even Late Roman levels. Even now, all multi-period projects have to establish priorities as to what they publish.

I suppose my initial, shocked response speaks to how deeply an adherence to a mythical scientific archaeology still runs within me. At the same time, I still think that publishing archaeological material promptly is important. And I'd argue that it is even more important to publish completely when sites are damaged or destroyed as a result of excavation or intensive survey. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the mechanics and politics of archaeological investigation dictate the extent to which it is possible or even desirable to adhere to these ideals in practice. This is even more evident when working in a foreign country with an archaeological establishment who understand the goals, procedures, and responsibilities of archaeological work in a very different light. The intersection of such "indigenous practices" of archaeological work — manifest in the goals of the nation building, the contingencies of local politics, and realities of curating sites long after foreign projects depart — and an outsider's view of archaeological expectations throw into relief how much the discipline of archaeology is really embedded within social practice.

  1. March 3, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Last year, I was asked to consult with archaeologists in the town of X, about a particular find from a previous generation that they wanted to publish in a shiny new book celebrating a new museum. I spent some time studying the find & wrote them a letter saying that it could not have come from X for these assorted reasons, and that it, in fact, came from organized grave-robbing.
    I had a letter back from them saying, “We have discussed your opinions and are in agreement with you, but you don’t understand, we have to have it come from X.”

  2. Katie Rask
    March 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Really interesting post and a topic that ought to be discussed publicly with more frequency. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. luke t
    June 6, 2010 at 12:52 am

    there is a long history of archaeological suppression and it is utterly unacceptable. in our supposedly enlightened era it would seem unthinkable to repeat the mistakes of our past. preconceived notions need to be discarded in the face of irrefutable evidence. archaeological anomalies also make no sense – why should they be called anomalies,they are finds not anomalies perhaps the only anomaly is an established tradition that makes them so. thorough research needs to be carried out not ruled out. science owes it to humanity if only to prove that these claims and finds are false or mistaken. another interesting article highlighting the suppression respected archaeologists encounter is pasted below for your perusal.

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