Archaeological Laborers in the Middle East

Examining the critical role of local workers in archaeology

Egyptian foreman

Egyptian foreman watching over local workers at the site of Beth Shemesh, in c. 1920–1933. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-15687

Ever since the 19th century, when Western explorers and archaeologists first began to take a serious, professional interest in the history and cultures of the classical and biblical worlds, foreign excavations have relied heavily on local archaeological laborers to conduct their digs. What are the consequences of this history and why does it matter?

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Writing for the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archeology Review, Allison Mickel addresses this complex issue in her article “Silent Labor: Dig Workers in the Middle East.” An assistant professor of Anthropology at Lehigh University, Mickel spent five years interviewing local archaeological laborers who helped excavate two major sites in the eastern Mediterranean: Petra in Jordan and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. But her research is much more than memoirs. Mickel collected personal stories of these “silent” laborers and studied piles of historical documents to uncover how such archaeological enterprises worked, who the archaeological laborers were, how they gained their skills and knowledge, and what the consequences of foreign archaeological missions have been for local communities, cultural heritage protection, and the creation of knowledge. Her insights appeared in her 2021 book Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor, published by the University Press of Colorado.

Mickel documents how, season after season, large archaeological digs in the Middle East have historically used scores of locally hired archaeological laborers to excavate sites—to dig, haul, and dump excavated material. Her study reveals that many of these workers developed significant expertise in excavation methodology. But even though such projects would have been impossible without local archaeological laborers, these workers are rarely mentioned in archaeological publications and have generally been excluded from the documentation, analysis, and publication of archaeological research.


Lines of local women carrying earth to the dump at the site of Beth Shemesh, in c. 1920–1933. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-15685


“Historically, the manual and the intellectual work of archaeology have been treated as two separate phases, with one person moving the soil and another one documenting its texture and color. Combining the two would acknowledge the expert work entailed in removing, recognizing, sifting, and dumping soil. If site workers participated in documentation, they could include their perspectives and knowledge in the archaeological record and, by extension, the scholarly interpretations,” notes Mickel in her article. Quite surprisingly, her interviews reveal that many highly skilled workers themselves tend to downplay their role in archaeological exploration. She calls it “lucrative non-knowledge.”

To unpack all the entangled issues involved in this topic, including why local archaeological laborers do not admit to their own expertise, read Allison Mickel’s “Silent Labor: Dig Workers in the Middle East,” published in the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article “Silent Labor: Dig Workers in the Middle East” by Allison Mickel in the Spring 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

You can also read about an online exhibition “Unsilencing the Archives,” which portrays the role of local laborers and Egyptian foremen in excavating Tell en-Nasbeh, an archaeological site about 8 miles northwest of Jerusalem, in 1926–1935.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Unsilencing the Archives

Pharaoh’s Brick Makers

Archaeological Views: Missing from the Picture

Read more in the BAS Library:

Unsilencing the Archives

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