Workshop review: Archaeological Ethnographies (Poros, Greece)

Archaeological Ethnographies: Charting a Field, Devising Methodologies.
Poros, Greece, 6-8 June 2008
Organised by Yannis Hamilakis and Aris Anagnostopoulos (University of Southampton).

Ressources available:
Workshop programme
Workshop homepage
Project homepage

Archaeologists, Participant Observers and Agent Provocateurs?

Regarding my adoption of the pose of participant observer, I must at the outset provide my motives for delving into this discrete politic (the workshop) enduring in a discrete time and space. This ethnographic self had been invited to attend the conference as an observer. On self reflection, my motives were clear, to ‘get into the minds’ of the participants, to find out where archaeology in the Mediterranean was heading, to network. On the first day of the ‘Archaeological Ethnographies’ workshop we quickly learned that the Kalaureia (Poros) archaeological project run by the Swedish Institute of Athens has three aims, to investigate the extension of the Sanctuary of Poseidon, to examine local religion of the period in question (Classical/Hellenistic), and most importantly in terms of the workshop ‘to study which impact the archaeological remains have had in the recent past and, perhaps, have today in the local society and how the society perceives the excavations’. The workshop focussed on this latter issue addressing particularly the role and obligations of the archaeologist and archaeology generally as an endeavour within a present and specific socio-political milieu.

I was a participant observer immersed in a group of professional participant observers. This divergent group described themselves as archaeologists and as anthropologists, cultural anthropologists and social anthropologists, terms that divided as much as defined. My ethical mantra (quickly abandoned) was that I was not to interfere with this group, my participation was to be limited. However, I was aware that even in limited observation one potentially, or rather, inevitably affects the object(s) of observation. There is after all only one small step from participant observer to agent provocateur, if they are not already the same thing.

The motives of this politic were purportedly to devise or elaborate upon methodologies for addressing contemporary archaeological concerns on the role of the archaeologist and archaeology with particular regard to the socio-political aspects of the practice. Not ethnoarchaeology, where the present is used to precariously model the past, but archaeological ethnography, a form of Public Archaeology whose project is the demystification of archaeology and a sociology of the archaeological event itself. The reasoning of this method is that the archaeologist (as anthropologist) must become more self aware, his/her own participation in the archaeological ‘event’ must be counted among the meanings gleaned from the archaeological act, indeed the very nature of the ‘event’ itself must be acknowledged.

‘Multi-sited’ was a term bandied about enthusiastically on the first day of the conference…. demystification was presumably to occur after the usual jargon had been gotten out of the way. The blanket use of ‘Multi-sited’ came to an abrupt halt on the second day when one of the newly arrived distinguished guests unknowingly began his paper by relating how hackneyed and meaningless many terms including ‘multi-sited’ had become. Suffice to say the term ‘multi-sited’ failed to resurface for the remainder of the seminar. There were arguments about ethics, a value long held in the new world but which had apparently barely touched the Mediterranean by all accounts (also making me wonder whether I should have sought ethics committee approval before attending the conference…). A ‘trigger’ to this end and lacking in this particular locale was a more outwardly ambiguous attachment to heritage, or a contested heritage, heritage as political tool as evidenced in the Eastern Mediterranean for example or the U.S. or Australia. While there is no doubt that archaeology in the Mediterranean is as politicised as anywhere else, the socio-political stakes in this particular locale are not high.

Continuing on the first day, various meanings were encountered, one participant observer whose opinion held some currency within the group argued that material culture may have some ‘intrinsic value’. An audience member disagreed. Behind the scenes one of the esteemed elders of the group quietly agreed with the audience interloper. Again away from the action a high powered (comparatively) young archaeologist agreed that objects do not have intrinsic value, but that it was not his place to say so within the ritual structure of the meeting – after all his paper was to follow, a point that the esteemed elder had also made. Then there was the continuous blanket charge of being a ‘barrier builder’ between the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. A charge that elicited the general response, ‘No, no, no, I think that we are actually arguing the same thing.’ ‘Hybrid’ (a term this particular participant observer would like to see deposited in the bottom of a deep dried up cistern and covered under tons of backfill) was bandied about until a female Greek archaeologist asked ‘What exactly is not hybrid?’ Then there ensued a brief discussion about the questionable merits of the term, and when and under what conditions it should be used – and presumably under what supervision. The group could not find an agreement and the term continued to resurface unabated, occasionally replaced by ‘trans-textuality’. ‘Political economy’ was another term often used, introduced by a female North American archaeologist, relating to our objects of study – outside the conference room walls – though it could have just as easily applied inside them. ‘Political economy’ dealt directly with the circumstances faced by indigenous and /or local peoples when they reclaim or otherwise negotiate (ie. loot) their heritage, mainly a result of their political economy, just as the participant observers negotiate heritage within its constraints (along with ethics approval I also wondered whether I should have indeed kept every receipt…).

Some moments of insight, however, were almost poetic, for example a conversation on the elaboration of different temporal modes and elucidations of a valuable life’s work to date on the Methana Peninsula. This was interspersed with the more mundane aspects of an archaeologist’s own political economy such as the ‘three journal rule’ for getting papers published and inescapably logical assertions such as a quip that the WAC was a brand as much as a world association of archaeologists. The topic of the new Indiana Jones movie also surfaced receiving mixed reviews – particularly with regards to whether the mythical character is good or bad for the discipline…(and since having seen it I would add our general sense of reality).

A general message was that archaeologists still had a lot to learn from anthropology – and not just another appropriation of its jargon. The archaeologist must immerse themselves into the present milieu of the community whose past he/she elaborates and yet remain politically neutral, (if not ideally, neutralized). Archaeology and in particular archaeologists must communicate, they must be demystified, archaeology must come clean as regards to its reasoning, why for example excavate at all? Why is it important? What is the nature and status of the knowledge archaeology produces? With regards to the Kalaureia project, the past presented was uncontroversial. Further, one felt also that the island community had other more immediate interests on their minds – such as their own personal political economies. The archaeological site or what remains of it is of generally limited importance, a classical/Hellenistic period site, a sanctuary of Poseidon no less or what remains of its foundations, the type of site that tourist’s expect to find as their backdrop when they holiday in Greece. Indeed it seems inevitable that one day in the future the site’s overriding meaning will be that of tourist diversion.

The tour of the sanctuary was indeed a documentary event, every participant took photos of everything even faintly phenomenological. I personally have many photos of participant observers taking photos of participant observers taking photos etc. I could not imagine another group that lent itself to such self scrutiny – except perhaps the locals sitting outside the cafes of Poros in that nation of leisured watchers. Some of the social anthropologists attempted to feign an interest in the site. During the tour, continual busloads of polite tourists and locals were deposited at the sanctuary. One particularly large group was led by the mayor of the town and his entourage. At one stage the whole event reminded me of a Fellini film, complete with an auteur, orchestrating events. Our Swedish field guides on the other hand elaborated on the finds, a Hellenistic period inscription, sat beside inscriptions carved by English sailors in the 19th century and graffiti left by the previous private owners of the site – dated 1959 reminding one that Bergsonian time had been mentioned on the first day, but curiously not the term ‘palimpsest’ – perhaps that term is in interdisciplinary hiatus. Visual reconstructions of the site were offered, set against the backdrop of magnificent Aegean views. It all made sense to our contemporary perspective. A guestbook, whose contents would later also become an object of study by one of the group, was signed. The official full time photographer of the Kalaureia project left nothing to chance and through necessity documented everything.

A Finnish field archaeologist of the excavations did not elaborate on the reasoning for the excavations when asked by one of the guest archaeologists. The Finn did however elaborate on cisterns blocked with dog bones by people in the past – perhaps as part of ritual practice. The end came when the gaudy model train delivering more tourists to the site was blocked by carelessly parked cars – thus modern Greek tropes once again intersected ancient ones, the past and the present co-existing. Another Scandinavian archaeologist was sighted (sited?) taking the model train ride back to town. Some of the esteemed group were ferried in cars, and others casually walked.

Could I, did I assimilate with this politic? As far as the group was a composed of a number of individuals, yes. An ‘intimacy’ was established on this one on one level, particularly away from the meeting place or just outside of it, and generally away from the group. Dealing with the group as a whole was a different matter altogether, protocols, hierarchies, even manners had to be observed. The ‘conference’ mode under which rubric the group negotiated their different meanings functioned well and all expressed their divergent views whatever their status within the group which was pretty much governed by an individual’s status outside the group. Given the intimate size of the group ‘networking’ was limited, but as always present. The aspect of ‘performance’ was emphasized by one archaeologist. Within the group there was far less cohesion, and the divergent meanings that each individual brought to the table initiated endless arguments and disagreements over ‘jargon’ the appropriate(d) use of jargon, appropriate(d) methodologies and disciplinary boundaries. No ‘totalizing’ consensus was reached, nor sought. However, this participant observer did feel that he had many questions to ponder over on the ferry ride to back to Athens, particularly if he were ever to write this review.

One such question which was found to be a little more than problematic was asked by a member of the audience, ‘How much does archaeology actually have to do with the past’. It was filed in the too hard basket twice but imaginatively addressed later on the second day by an enigmatic Central American Archaeologist (whose own persona seemed touched by magic realism – also challenging for ones sense of reality). As the workshop went on, one felt that the conference was building up to the tacit possibility that archaeology may abandon a dialogue or interaction with the past – and not all participants agreed that this was at all possible in the first place. Are for instance certain archaeological practices being submerged by their own PR? Are they becoming a by product of the archaeological event? What of an archaeology involved with something as archaic and naive as problem solving, or practiced according to something as prosaic as a research design? With regards to Kalaureia, uncovering the sanctuary may provide some comparative data, it may give us some limited insight into past lifeways, however the potential concern for the archaeologists of the project may be the renewed authoritative status the ‘event’ invariably gives archaeologists within the local community and beyond. Further to this there is the question of the motives, legacy and international prestige sought by nations that feel the need to continue their archaeological presence in Greece. Nevertheless it is archaeologies such as that of Greece which arguably require not only a greater interaction between archaeologists and the community, but an overdue self reflection if not major overhaul of how it uses and interacts with its often celebrated, overly politicized and yet rarely interrogated past. A female Greek archaeologist addressed many of these contemporary realities in a sophisticated paper on her Skithion project.

What meanings this group defined by their interaction in this discrete space and time we can today piece together, this is, however, only my perspective. Perhaps it would have been fair if every participant observer had been asked to write a short review – just as they were asked to sign the guestbook. Did I collect my material ethically? I think so, though some at the conference could disagree. Should I have told everyone I was asked to write a review for EJA? Probably, but that may have affected the outcome of this paper, and perhaps humbly, the seminar. After three days the group had partly dismantled some disciplinary boundaries, however, the workshop and thus the ‘intimacy’ was over. However, one aspect that left a lasting impression on me was the interplay of tangible and intangible method, or the intimacy with which each participant observer practiced his or her craft. Little material evidence of the event remains at the meeting site, except the site itself (the local library was repatriated graciously to the locals) innumerable photographs, doodles, reams of paper, and the intangibles of exchanged emails, doodles, unreliable memories and a web page. What about the locals? What had they been left with besides the pleasure of the ruins? During the workshop, photographs of local labourers appeared on the big screen against the backdrop of the archaeological site. The participant observers had been invited to dine with the local mayor and his entourage. The locals’ political economy was no doubt enhanced by the influx of conference guests. The past is inescapable in Greece for many reasons, not least its political economy. The locals were and are involved in the continuing Kalaureia archaeological event, whether they want to be or not. It is their heritage after all, isn’t it?

Greg Deftereos
Archaeology Dept
La Trobe University

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