Category Archives: Archaeological ethics

Field archaeology & sexual harassment

Field archaeology has a sexual harassment problem. Everybody knows this, at least anecdotally; we’ve all seen, experienced, and/or heard about it. It’s especially problematic in a field that is numerically dominated by women but where many of the directorial staff are men. It’s scandalous that this is the case, and it’s scandalous that our institutions seem to be doing nothing about it.

A recent article in American Anthropologist about this problem, “Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories,” suggests some ways forward. They find that sexual harassment and assault are systemic problems in fieldwork (not specifically, but including, archaeological fieldwork) and that these behaviors hurt women in a variety of ways, including their careers. That’s not surprising. What is useful is their finding that clear rules and consequences are clearly associated with healthier projects. That is to say, on such projects

field directors and researchers participated in explicit conversations, training, or meetings to establish site-specific policies. Senior researchers engaged in implicit modeling of these rules to other field researchers and often made themselves available for discussion. There was also evidence that the rules at these sites were enforced with observable consequences. In one specific example, the sexual harassment of a peer resulted in the perpetrator being asked to leave the fieldsite.

The other major, related, finding was that good projects

were fair and/or egalitarian in execution, living and working conditions were intentional and safe, and directors anticipated problems and created avenues for conversations or reporting. Respondents who described these experiences highlighted the importance of having women in leadership roles at their sites, particularly if the rest of the site leadership valued those women’s roles.

My own experiences tally with these findings, especially when it comes to the project that I co-direct. I wish that this article had come out before we started our project, because it would have changed the way I did some things – I would have been much more explicit about our policies on sexual harassment, for instance – but most of them were things that we did on our project. The negative findings also tally with my experiences and what I’ve heard about bad projects.

The big problem here, from my perspective, is that projects are not held to account by the institutions that regulate archaeological field work. The Archaeological Institute of America’s Code of Professional Standards says that archaeologists shouldn’t harass or discriminate, but that has no teeth. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens requires an application for a field permit to include statements about research questions, methods and techniques, site conservation, a budget, etc. but nowhere is anything said about policies to enforce issues arising from discrimination and harassment. The same is true for the Canadian Institute in Greece. Searches for “harass” and “harassment” on their websites yield nothing about policies about sexual harassment.

This is unsatisfactory, because as many of us know, the worst offenders can be the project directors themselves. It doesn’t help that although women are probably the majority of all field projects, they are severely underrepresented among directorial staff. (And this criticism is true of my own project: men outnumber women on the directorial staff, but virtually all of our supervisors are women and most of our students were).

I don’t think that we can claim, in the face of all the evidence, that this is simply a question of a few bad eggs. This is a systemic problem and it requires a systemic solution.

My suggestion would be that applications for field permits in Greece should be required to include policies that govern discrimination and harassment. If they refuse to include such policies, their request should be denied. Participants need to be made aware of these policies, and that they may report violations to the Director of the American School or the Canadian Institute (and to the relevant fieldwork committees), since we know what happens when such problems are dealt with internally. This is a serious problem, and we need to deal with it seriously.

Against the universal museum

For some time now, I’ve been fairly suspicious of arguments for the universal museum (the museums themselves I have no problems with). There has been some momentum in this area: James Cuno has been banging the drum for some time now, and he’s been joined recently by Tiffany Jenkins. The latter author’s work has been especially visible lately, both in articles written for the popular press and in reviews of her published book, most recently in the Wall Street Journal.

The argument, distilled down, goes something like this (this is taken from the summary of Cuno’s book linked above):

“Antiquities,” James Cuno argues, “are the cultural property of all humankind,” “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities–and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics.

The universal museum thus saves antiquities from nationalism by putting them into a global context.

My suspicion with this argument is simply that while it is happy to criticize others, it does not engage in a self-critique. That is to say, the politics of the universal museum are not something that is interesting to those who make these arguments. Indeed, the politics and the history are actively white-washed.

Take, for the example, the review of Jenkins’ book in the WSJ, written by Henrik Bering. He tells us that “From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story.” Perhaps. But he tells us this immediately after reporting that “when things started to show up in British museums a decade later [after the 2nd opium war, 1857-1860], curators chose to display them as loot rather than art in order to underscore the military might of Britain.” (Chris Lovell brought this contradiction to my attention).

Indeed, it seems odd to argue that universal museums like the British Museum are somehow immune from the charge of nationalism. After all, Croker argued in parliament that the Elgin Marbles should be purchased

for the benefit of the public, for the honour of the nation, for the promotion of national arts, for the use of the national artists, and even for the advantage of our manufactures, the excellence of which dependent on the progress of the arts in the country.

whereas Grant argued “that that would be a mistaken economy, as well as bad taste, which would deprive this country of such valuable works of art as lord Elgin had collected” (emphasis mine throughout). It’s not like the British government is immune from the nationalistic desire to keep cherished artifacts from leaving the country – as this government ban from the sale of the dagger and robes of T.E. Lawrence abroad shows. Or see this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Where is the criticism of the petty nationalism that seeks to deny Kelly Clarkson ownership of a ring owned by Jane Austen? The UK’s Culture minister Ed Vaizey said of the export ban that it “provides us with a ‘last chance’ to save treasures like these for the nation so they can be enjoyed by all of us.” (Emphasis mine).

It’s worth noting that British nationalism, or American nationalism, is never flagged as a problem by those discussing repatriation and the proper home for material culture. Instead, the nationalism problem is always framed as Us against Them. Consider the opening of Bering’s review, which begins as follows:

Pity the plight of today’s museum director: What used to be a quiet kingdom with creaky floorboards and sleepy custodians has become a raging battlefield where scarcely a day passes without a demand for the return of some of his treasures.

The Greeks have forever been clamoring for the Elgin Marbles,which have resided in the British Museum for two centuries. The Turks have their own list, including an ancient marble carving of a child’s head in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Egyptians want the Nefertiti bust from Berlin, and from Boston, the Nigerians want the Benin bronzes, sacrificial idols still “caked over with human blood” when taken by a British punitive expedition against the king of Benin in 1897.

The Greeks. The Turks. The Egyptians. The Nigerians. These are homogeneous national groups. But the other protagonists in this drama have names, identities, carefully thought out opinions. Thus the discussion is structured to oppose the museum curators with academic credentials and carefully thought-out opinions to anonymous groups who apparently all think alike along narrow nationalistic lines.

Finally, we are told that these parochial, nationalistic museums that want their treasures back reproduce an ethos that “resurrects racial ways of thinking” (Jenkins). Indeed, we are told that “far from tearing down walls between people, these institutions erect new ones.” This is the ultimate twist of the knife: the victims of imperialism and colonialism are now accused of “racial ways of thinking” whereas the poor, downtrodden curators of the noble universal museum (the real victims in all of this!) don’t see race. In this they are not unlike Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Instead, these brave men and women only see the grand sweep of the history of humankind. Yet neither do they see, for they choose not to see, their own past or for that matter their own present.

My grand challenges for archaeology

Doug Rocks-McQueen invited me to participate in a blogging carnival about the “grand challenges” of my archaeology. I meant to give this some serious thought and to write a blog entry (slowly, as is my wont) but I’ve been swarmed by a bunch of deadlines that I’m trying to keep, so instead this will be short and sweet. It will also be relatively undigested and maybe even stupid.

  1. Rapid publication. Everyone I know, including myself, thinks that rapid, open-access, digital publication is good. It is good. We have a duty, especially when our work is being publicly funded, but not just because of that, to publish our results (meaning data and interpretations) in a rapid, accessible way. The internet has made this a real possibility just when the amount of data being produced by archaeologists has sky-rocketed. That’s great. On the other hand, we don’t want a situation where data is being live-streamed at the trowel’s edge to the point that the producers of that knowledge have no ability to think seriously about it, because that’s also bad; bad for knowledge production, because real advances and good interpretations require careful contemplation (Bill Caraher’s slow archaeology extends beyond the trench’s edge to interpretation), but also it would be bad if field archaeologists were mere data-producers for high-minded armchair archaeologists who immediately accessed it, processed it, and produced narratives and interpretations in which the interpreters were entirely separated and disembodied from the archaeological process. This sounds oldy-timey, I know. But I have friends who spend an awful amount of time doing hard work in the field only to have it “scooped” when they present it at conferences or in blog posts or whatever. This isn’t a problem with rapid publication per se, but the rapidity of the process, while wonderful, has other consequences.
  2. Archaeology and the public. Where I work, in Greece, there is a tension between the official organs of archaeological practice and the public at large. Especially the rural public, where I work, tends to be suspicious and resentful of archaeologists who can threaten their livelihood by expropriating their agricultural land. The archaeologists, in turn, are suspicious of looters and looting. This is a difficult situation in which to work, because I want to have an open discourse with the local communities in which I work. My own feeling, which is perhaps naive, is that the best way forward for archaeology and archaeologists is to open dialogues with local communities and the public, to encourage a feeling that the cultural heritage in their backyards is their cultural heritage and ought to be something that they value and protect. At present, that’s not really the case. People tend to have a fairly pragmatic view of the ancient Greek material past where I work: if it can be monetized by attracting tourists (as at Mycenae, although most of the people I talk to don’t think that the inhabitants of that village have done a good job capitalizing on tourist revenues), that’s great; otherwise, it just gets in the way. From the perspective of the archaeologist, that’s clearly a problem, but at the moment, I feel caught in the middle: I want to open a dialogue to educate and inform – and again, I feel that this is my duty – but neither do I want to go against the wishes of the local authorities, whose job it is to manage and protect the cultural heritage of the Greek nation. I really respect the job that they do, and I want to help. I suppose that at the moment, I’m not convinced that business as usual will lead to a long-term improvement of the risks faced by cultural heritage in Greece.

These are not the grandest of challenges – I know that archaeologists elsewhere face much greater ones. And in a country suffering from economic recession/depression and doing its best to help refugees from drowning in its seas, these grand challenges seem especially trivial. But they are the things that I worry about.

Papyrus, clay, and the market

Two articles about the publication of ancient texts of unknown provenance have got me thinking about the ethical issues of publication. The first is Doug Boin’s op-ed in the New York Times about the forthcoming publication of two new fragments of Sappho, the second is Jerry Cooper’s argument on the ASOR blog for publishing cuneiform tablets that do not have a provenance.

Let’s begin with the Sappho. The announcement that two new poems of Sappho had been found and that publication was imminent created a sensation both in Classics circles and in the popular press, but some people (including myself) were worried that in the preliminary draft of the publication (posted online but now taken down), we were just told that the papyrus was “now in a private collection” of an anonymous person in London. As Boin points out in his op-ed:

Looting has become particularly catastrophic in Egypt in recent years. Sites have been pillaged, including those in military zones, and museums have not been spared. In 2011, the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square suffered at the hands of rioters. Half of the nearly 50 objects stolen have been recovered, but the situation was deemed so grave that in February 2012 the International Council of Museums launched an Emergency Red List of Egyptian objects at risk of theft. Items to look out for? Mummies, mummy casings, and papyrus fragments.

Given that fact, it might seem a bit odd that more information about the provenance of the papyrus wasn’t provided. But actually, it’s not too surprising when you realize that most people just don’t care. Even if the papyrus were illegal, does anyone really believe that scholars would uniformly, or even as a majority, refuse to publish two new fragments of Sappho?

This is not to accuse papyrologists of being unethical. They’re not. But there is, it seems to me, a sense that different rules apply to texts. As Doug Boin tweeted,

Clearly the answer is “no.” But texts are different. Why?

Here we can turn to Jerry Cooper’s thoughtful piece on the ASOR blog. The argument is twofold: First, unlike archaeological artifacts, textual documents contain within them contextual information. Second, unlike many archaeological artifacts, it is unknown whether publications of cuneiform texts “help create a market for cuneiform tablets and thus encourage looting and site destruction.” Cooper honestly isn’t sure what to think about this:

 I have seen no well-founded answer to this question [whether publication encourages looting], and I can’t pretend to know what motivates the small number of serious collectors of these rectangular bits of inscribed mud. I personally find working with dealers to identify and market looted tablets reprehensible. In any case, nearly all the unprovenanced tablets being published today are off the market, in large public collections, where they are well cared for. It makes no sense to ignore them, or to stigmatise scholars who have saved them from oblivion.

Cooper then goes on to say:

It is quite possible that the number of tablets illicitly excavated since the first Gulf War in 1991 is as large as the number of all the tablets that came to light in the century and a half before 1991- perhaps 200,000. Can a scholar willfully ignore half of the evidence bearing on his subject? I can’t.

Here, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue. Cooper doesn’t know whether publishing encourages looting, but it seems that he really doesn’t want to know, because first of all, it’s awful — “no cuneiformist could be unmoved by the moonscape images of looted sites” — but even if there were a direct and demonstrable link between publication, the market, and looting, he couldn’t bear to ignore half of the evidence that bears on his subject anyway. That hardly seems like a defensible position to me. It’s a rationalization of an established practice, which is to publish texts that don’t have good archaeological provenience.

(Parenthetically, it seems insane to me to write an argument in defense of publishing texts of unknown origin while claiming ignorance about whether there’s a relationship between publication and looting — not because I think that such a relationship is self-evident — but because it’s illogical. Doesn’t one need to have an answer to such a question?)

It seems to me likely that something similar is going on with the Sappho fragment. It’s too spectacular, too important, to ignore. And the omission of the provenance of the fragment wasn’t, it seems to me, intentional, but reflects the priorities of scholarly practice… unfortunately, in my view,