Essential Excavation Experts: Alienation and Agency in the History of Archaeological Labor

  • Allison MickelEmail author


Nineteenth-century archaeologists working in the Middle East managed local labor in ways that reflect capitalist labor management models. These archaeologists’ memoirs reveal both the similarities in how they managed their projects and the differences in how locally hired laborers responded. Focusing on such differences illustrates the agency that local workforces have historically exerted over the archaeological process, even under alienating working conditions. I argue that while there is some emerging recognition of contributions that local communities have made to archaeology, taking a Marxist and historical view reveals how much archaeological knowledge production has fundamentally relied upon site workers’ active choices.

Key Words

History of archaeology Labor Knowledge production Middle East 


Les archéologues du 19e siècle qui travaillaient au Moyen-Orient géraient la main-d’œuvre locale selon les modèles capitalistes de l’époque. Les mémoires de ces derniers révèlent à la fois des similitudes dans leur façon de gérer leurs projets et des différences quant aux comportements des travailleurs embauchés sur place. Ces différences illustrent la capacité d’agir ou l’agentivité historique des mains-d’œuvre locales sur le processus archéologique, et ce, même si ces dernières étaient soumises à des conditions de travail aliénantes. J’avance que même si l’on commence à reconnaître les contributions des communautés locales sur l’archéologie, l’adoption de points de vue marxiste et historique révèle à quel point la production des connaissances archéologiques a fondamentalement dépendu des choix actifs des travailleurs sur place.


Los arqueólogos que trabajaban en el Medio Oriente en el siglo 19 manejaban los asuntos laborales locales en formas que reflejan los modelos de gestión capitalista de trabajo. Las memorias de estos arqueólogos revelan tanto las similitudes en la forma en que gestionaban sus proyectos y las diferencias en la forma en que respondían los trabajadores contratados localmente. Al abordar tales diferencias, se ilustra la agencia que los trabajadores locales han ejercido históricamente sobre el proceso arqueológico, incluso bajo condiciones de trabajo alienante. Yo sostengo que, si bien ha surgido algún reconocimiento de las contribuciones de las comunidades locales a la arqueología, un punto de vista marxista e histórico revela el grado en que la producción del conocimiento arqueológico ha dependido fundamentalmente de las elecciones activas de los trabajadores de sitio.



I would like to thank Ian Hodder, Barb Voss, Benjamin Porter, and Michael Shanks for their questions and thoughts on the topic of archaeological labor as I developed the ideas in this text. Their advice and feedback has pushed my own thinking about the matter much further, and I hope that they can see evidence of their contributions here. I am also grateful for the feedback and advice from the two anonymous reviewers for this piece. Any flaws or gaps, of course, remain my own.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares she has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology & AnthropologyLehigh UniversityBethlehemUSA

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