Sanctifying Our Sites: Self-reflection on an archaeological dig
Ceri Houlbrook, PhD Researcher, University of Manchester
If I had to propose a title for my line of research – and the label-loving realm of academia suggests that I do – then I would declare myself a folklore archaeologist. Basically, I employ archaeological methodologies in my study of folkloric objects and structures.
But these archaeological methodologies rarely include excavation, and so, even though I’ve been dipping my toe into non-research-related digs over the years, I’m really – in the literal and metaphorical sense of the term – an archaeologist without a trowel. However, in September 2013, I had my first opportunity to get my hands dirty in a dig that was relevant to my research.
For my thesis, I’ve been studying British coin-trees, which are exactly what they sound like: trees which have had coins embedded into their barks for various folkloric purposes, such as luck or wish-fulfilment. I’ve catalogued over 200 of these trees, ranging in date from the late 18th century to the present day.
There was one particular coin-tree which took my interest; a dead hawthorn in Argyll, Scotland, which I was having difficulty dating. One source claimed that it was ‘centuries’ old, whilst the landowner opined that the custom had begun in the 1920s. The coins embedded into the tree, however, all post-dated the 1950s. And so when the evidence on the ground doesn’t proffer the information you need, what do archaeologists do? We dig.
I’m not writing this post to discuss the results of this excavation, which will be published elsewhere (although for the sake of the curious reader, I’ll briefly remark that the landowner’s estimation of the 1920s doesn’t appear to have been far off the mark). Instead, what I’m aiming to discuss are the processes of an excavation from the perspective of someone who’s new to those processes. Because, even though I’d been to this coin-tree site before, it suddenly felt very different – because this time I wasn’t there as a folklorist, but as an archaeologist.
There’s something about designating a place an ‘archaeological excavation site’ that gives it more prestige – even, to a certain extent, a sense of sanctity. The ranging rods, surveying equipment, array of buckets, shovels, trowels, and measuring tapes, all contribute to this shift, as if they imbue it with greater importance. They are props, removing it from the surrounding landscape, marking it out as something ‘special’. Archaeologists are often accused of desecration; in the hackneyed words of Mortimer Wheeler, ‘Archaeology is destruction’ (1954: 15). However, I would argue that we do the opposite. We don’t desecrate; we consecrate.
Although I’m always careful around coin-trees, I’ve never felt the same excessive anxiety as I did on this excavation. I was suddenly incredibly cautious about how I physically engaged with the site; I was reluctant to touch the tree, and whenever I moved around in its vicinity, I did so gingerly, as if so much as breathing on the coin-tree would bring the whole thing crashing down. It was a strange transition from my last visit, when I’d viewed the coin-tree as a natural part of the landscape rather than as a fragile monument, and it really struck me that archaeology doesn’t just explore sites; it alters them.
And we alter ourselves to accommodate them.
From what I’ve observed, people don’t revere these coin-trees. They don’t perceive them as solemn or consecrated, but as interesting features that they can touch, climb over/under, sit on, and hammer their own coins into. They don’t worry about the fragility of these structures; to them, it’s inevitable that the coin-trees will eventually fragment and decay. And so there’s nothing conservative about the ways in which members of the public interact with these monuments.
But as archaeologists, we don’t class ourselves as ‘members of the public’. To an extent, we don’t class ourselves as ‘people’. We’re like time-travellers; we’re scared to interfere lest we alter something that shouldn’t be altered, and so we remove ourselves from time and place. We treat our sites as sacred; we handle our finds not as if they were objects meant to be handled, but as artefacts, fragile and enshrined.
Now I’m not suggesting that all archaeologists everywhere change their approach. There’s a reason we act the way we do. But what I am suggesting is that in some cases perhaps, in order to gain both a fuller and deeper understanding of a site, we should allow ourselves to engage with places and structures the way everyone else does. To experience them as people rather than just as archaeologists.
Sara Gonzalez, Assistant Professor, University of Washington
Much like Ceri describes, I too approach the practice of archaeology with a sense of reverence. I understand the sites where I work as belonging to a living heritage; their spaces and materials as deserving of proper treatment and care. Care here refers to the attitudes and practices one observes while working with cultural heritage.
Yet, this perspective is not so much an artifact of my training, as it is the result of my experiences working with Indigenous communities in California and the Pacific Northwest. In these contexts the science and trappings of archaeology neither consecrate nor make an ancestral place sacred. In fact, archaeology can, and often has, achieved quite the opposite effect (Deloria 1969; Mihesuah 2000; Trigger 1980). This colonial legacy has led many within the field to re-configure the practice of archaeology so that it is informed by both archaeological and Indigenous values and principles.
Let me illustrate using an example of my work with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians at Fort Ross State Historic Park in northern California where I am working with the tribe and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a cultural heritage trail. Given Kashia concerns over the practice of archaeology on ancestral sites, the project worked with the community to develop a research methodology that integrates Kashia worldviews into the management and representation of their ancestral homeland, Metini (Gonzalez 2011).
The disturbance of sacred sites with profane acts—which is how the Kashia define archaeological practice—is potentially spiritually dangerous. Hence, despite a long history of collaboration with anthropologists in the early 20th century, the tribe refused to participate in archaeological research until it was reframed as a ceremonial undertaking (Dowdall and Parrish 2003). This reframing was achieved through observance of Kashaya cultural laws in our daily practices wherein we regarded Kashia ancestral sites as part of a sacred, living landscape that requires sacrifice on the part of individuals.
To borrow Ceri’s words, in altering ourselves to accommodate these places, we mitigate the danger of archaeology and demonstrate our respect for both the tribal community and their ancestors. This was the primary way we moved away from creating knowledge about the Kashaya to creating knowledge with them (Tamisari 2006:24). The distinction here is forming reciprocal, non-hierarchical relationships that respect the individual contributions of collaborators. In this way we came to view the knowledge we create as the result of social relationships that proceed from a place of mutual respect, honesty, integrity, and trust. This, in turn, fostered an openness of communication so that tribal elders, scholars, and community members could remember and share histories of Fort Ross and Metini, thus contributing to the development of interpretation for the cultural heritage trail.
We each have our own way of relating to our work and to the places we find ourselves in. But I would urge archaeologists, as Ceri does, to explore how local communities engage with their cultural landscapes, as this knowledge broadens our imagination and approach to the places and spaces of our work.
Deloria, Vine 1969 Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Macmillan, New York.
Dowdall, K. M. and O. O. Parrish 2003 A Meaningful Disturbance of the Earth. Journal of Social Archaeology 3:99-133.
Gonzalez, S. 2011 Creating Trails from Traditions: The Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail at Fort Ross State Historic Park. Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley.
Mihesuah, D. A. (editor) 2000 Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
Tamisari, F. 2006 “Personal Acquaintance”: Essential Individuality and the Possibilities of Encounters. In Provoking Ideas: Critical Indigenous Studies, edited by T. Lea, E. Kowal and G. Cowlishaw, pp. 17-36. Darwin University Press, Darwin.
Trigger, B. G. 1980 Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian. American Antiquity 45:662- 76.
Matt Law, Faculty Member at Bath Spa University
The Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL next month will explore how archaeology has provided food for tales of the supernatural. Ceri’s work highlights another interesting aspect of archaeology and the supernatural, namely how archaeology can contribute to understanding how folkloric practices originate and persist. As a newcomer to archaeological fieldwork, she also provides some important insights into what archaeological investigations can mean.
The idea of consecrating places through designating them as archaeological sites is especially interesting, and feeds the idea of archaeology as social or political action. As Don Henson (2009, 117) has noted, archaeology is ‘inherently elitist’, as archaeologists seek to maintain their position as the experts, and it has a tendency to become ‘a self-selecting clique, defined by references to itself and reinforced through adopting particular methods of communication and practice’ (Henson 2009, 121). But this idea of sanctifying sites shows that archaeology –especially when it is conducted with people outside of the discipline – has the power to instil broader value on places that may be of immense social importance, but overlooked because of the transient or marginalised nature of the groups to whom they are important (e.g sites used by the homeless or vulnerably housed (Kiddey and Schofield 2011); or those related to clandestine crossings on the US-Mexico border (De León 2012). Folklore and superstition are prone to being overlooked in modern Britain.
The objective nature of the archaeological process is rightly identified here. Often, this is a way of attempting to ensure scientific objectivity, much more rarely a coping strategy when faced with particularly harrowing finds. My own experience is that archaeologists’ emotional engagement with their sites is seldom as dispassionate as the language of the reports they later produce would suggest. Of course, many do explicitly discuss experiential aspects of the site, especially from the perspective of the population being studied (this can even be attempted from analysis of snail shells from the site (see Evans 2005), and both objective and subjective approaches to archaeology should be (and often are!) seen as complementary, although care should always be taken not to privilege the excavator’s worldview, which may not reveal much about life in the past.
De León, J., 2012. “Better to be hot than caught”. Excavating the conflicting roles of migrant material culture. American Anthropologist, 114 (3), pp. 477-495.
Evans, J.G., 2005. The snails, in D. Benson & A. Whittle (eds.) Building Memories: the Neolithic Cotswold long barrow at Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 55-70.
Henson, D., 2009. What on earth is archaeology? In E. Waterton & L. Smith (eds.) Taking archaeology out of heritage (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) pp. 117-135.
Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J., 2011. Embrace the margins: adventures in archaeology and homelessness. Public Archaeology, 10 (1), pp. 4-22.