Indiana Jones popularized the figure of the lone, heroic archaeologist. With a wide-brimmed hat, loose white shirt, and eyes squinting into the desert sun as he uncovered the secrets of the past, the hero was usually white, male and foreign to the lands being excavated.
In reality, completing a major archaeological excavation requires hundreds of people — even though the lone archaeologist usually gets all of the glory. But changing attitudes are forcing historians and archaeologists to grapple with different ways to commemorate the work of the laborers and support staff of major digs throughout history.
The Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology is dedicated to preserving the archives and discoveries of William F. Badè — a white American archaeologist and adventurer who excavated in British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and ’30s. But its latest online exhibition, “Unsilencing the Archives: The Laborers of the Tell en-Nasbeh Excavations (1926-1935),” keeps Badè in the background, instead exploring the stories of the people responsible for the actual digging and hauling.
Badè spent five seasons excavating Tell en-Nasbeh, near Ramallah, which some historians believe could be the biblical city of Mitzpeh. The site contained a massive fortification wall, an impressive gate, houses with multiple rooms, family tombs, pottery, and metal artifacts. Mitzpeh is thought to have been inhabited from 1000 – 586 BCE, but has also contained artifacts from the Iron Age, Babylonian and Persian periods (1200 BCE to 330 BCE). Nearby tombs date from the Early Bronze Age (3200–2000 BCE).
Mitzpeh, which means watchtower or lookout, is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 31:45-49 as the place where Jacob and Laban create a pile of stones to mark that they are parting on amicable terms.
A social reckoning and creating a new narrative
The Badè Museum in Berkeley, California, which is associated with the Pacific School of Religion, usually hosts in-person exhibits connected to Badè’s work in Tell en-Nasbeh. They also maintain an extensive archive for researchers interested in Badè’s work and biblical archaeology.
But in 2020, when the pandemic forced all the museum employees to work remotely, staff started digging through the digital archives to try to create an online exhibit, said Badè Museum curator Dr. Melissa Cradic.
“As we got deeper into the material, we realized that there is such an untapped potential, because there was such a rich set of records written and visual about the logistics of the excavations and the process behind it,” said Cradic. “[There are] so many people who are involved, who don’t show up in the official publications.”
“We started finding all of these really interesting angles that we wanted to highlight, like the dig house, and women and children’s labor, and wages and pay scales,” she added. “These sorts of issues that are not typically part of the conversation in scholarship on the history of archaeology of this region.”
The staff started designing the exhibit in the summer of 2020, as protests around the murder of George Floyd had many organizations reassessing their relationship to social justice movements, racism, and the legacy of colonialism, Cradic said.
“A big part of that is critically assessing and looking in new ways at history, the history of the discipline and the whole context out of which many of these big digs operated,” said Cradic, who co-curated the exhibit with former Badè curator Sam Pfister.
Cradic first started working at the Badè Museum while she pursued her PhD at the University of California-Berkeley in 2012, before taking some time off and returning in 2018. She also lectures in anthropology at the State University of New York – Albany and Sonoma State University in California. Cradic has participated in digs for a number of seasons in Israel, especially at Megiddo.
The Badè Museum’s online exhibit is divided into four sections, including a focus on local leaders and foremen who often hailed from the region of Quft, Egypt; the “Maloufiya,” or dig house, and daily life of the staff based in El Bireh and Ramallah; the roles of women, children, and other underrecognized members of the workforce; and the labor and pay systems in place at the time.
“The idea was not just to be critical, but to build something new,” said Cradic. “We wanted to apply a corrective or restorative justice approach, where we’re adding something new by flipping the script and creating this new narrative based on the archival sources about the local laborers.”
A new approach to the history of archaeology
Last November, the online exhibit won the Community Engagement and Public Outreach award from the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR). A YouTube lecture series, co-sponsored by the Pacific School of Religion, the Archaeological Research Facility at University of California-Berkeley, and the Palestine Exploration Fund, hosted other historians and archaeologists who are exploring issues about decolonizing archaeology and highlighting the role of local labor and expertise. The exhibit and research from lecturers in the series will be collected in an upcoming anthology, which will be published by ASOR.
Badè’s writing, which is included in the exhibit in the form of letters and reports, seesaws between disparaging remarks about the laborers and singing their praises a few pages later. His published writing, especially, is more reflective of colonial attitudes of the time and disparaging towards the laborers.
He does write admirably about his foremen, who were mostly from an area of Egypt called Quft and trained with other Western archaeologists digging in the Middle East. But he found fault with them as well.
“Foremen generally are helpless in the presence of something unexpected, to which the rules they have learned in Egypt do not apply. They may either ignore it, or follow a rule of procedure that dictates perhaps the opposite of what should be done.”
—Manual of Excavation in the Near East, W.F. Badè, 1934
Tens of thousands of people have visited the online exhibit, much more than the typical in-person exhibit at the Badè Museum. And it’s also helped push forward an important conversation, said Cradic.
“There has been quite a lot of growing momentum in this bottom-up approach to history of archaeology, looking at the workers who are involved, the dynamics of labor, and also the dynamics of colonialism,” she said. Badè’s excavations are the perfect jumping-off point for a critical examination of labor hierarchies in major digs, Cradic added. “This was a really formative period for the discipline as it was developing, and also for the professionalization of [archaeology],” she said.
“Breaking down the hierarchies of the system [of labor in archaeology], to understand where they come from, has a lot of benefits,” said Cradic.
Many things have changed in archaeological digs in the past century. In academic digs, for example, some of the manual labor is carried out by university students who very much want to be working on-site in order to gain experience. But wage inequalities still exist in archaeology, as they do in many other industries, and the exhibit offers an opportunity to see payments and communication about wages from the early days.
Instagram stories from the 1920s
The archival footage in the Badè exhibit, including some short grainy black and white video clips, shows a more personal side to the excavation, almost like a social media feed providing a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes moments of the dig.
There are moments of levity, like a group of women laughing as they carefully balance baskets on their heads, a young girl shyly demonstrating the use of a grinding stone that was discovered in the dig, and the dig house caretaker playing with his children in the courtyard.
There’s a photo of a boisterous meal with Badè sharing traditional food with mukhtars, or religious leaders, from El-Bireh, or a group of men crowding around the window of a building as they wait for their wages. Many of the photos are colorized in technicolor tones, adding an Instagram-esque nostalgia filter.
“The photographs, and with a few of those film clips, really captures the human element of it,” said Cradic.
The photographs feature smiling, happy workers, which was not always the case. There are extensive photographs of children, often barefoot, working at the dig site, but few accounts of child labor show up in the official record-keeping. The photos do not capture the conflicts that arose, like a scuffle with the leaders of El-Bireh over hiring laborers from different towns, or the anger over low or withheld wages.
The Tell en-Nasbeh site is near the town of El-Bireh, a suburb of Ramallah, and one of the future goals of the exhibit is to connect with the descendants of the laborers pictured, said Cradic. This has proved difficult, as the Badè Museum does not have Arabic speakers on staff to reach out to residents and make connections. Few of the laborers in the photos are named, other than the trained supervisors, who are mostly Egyptian.
The museum is hoping to work with a local genealogical researcher to identify the families of the people in the photograph and include their names in the exhibit, as well as share the photos with the community, so those descendants and the wider public in El-Bireh understand and appreciate the role their ancestors played in archaeology a century ago.
In the meantime, the exhibit will stay online, and residents of the area are encouraged to see if they can spot relatives or provide any other information. Museum organizers hope that the information will continue to raise questions and inspire discussions about the more marginalized groups working in archaeology, historically and today.
“There’s always a lot of value in being self-reflective and looking at the history of the discipline through a critical lens,” said Cradic. “It can give a really grounded understanding of how the discipline developed, including the problems, some of which have changed, and some of which have not.”