Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Workmen of Mes Aynak

The story had all of the elements of a good Sunday New York Times (or Saturday Guardian) interest piece; ancient heritage on top of a mountain in Afghanistan is threatened by Chinese mining interests, but recent excavations revealed golden treasure, so the site may be safe for a time. I am not involved in the excavations at Mes Aynak, but the narrative is familiar--threatened sites, ancient treasure, and archaeologists assuring us that the site is of utmost importance to our knowledge of the past. Yet this is not what caught my attention--it was the counter-narrative presented in the brilliant photographs of the site by photojournalist Jerome Starkey.

In his set of forty photos on Flickr, Starkey captures the mountain vistas, the treasure, the foreign archaeologists carefully excavating the important discoveries; these are familiar tropes within archaeological photography, especially within the select few photographs that accompany archaeology news stories. Yet Starkey also focused on the workmen on site, centering his lens on their experience of the site. His photographs reveal what the news stories about Mes Aynak completely exclude--the social relations between (and within) the Afghan labor force and the foreign archaeologists who employ them.

Workmen are a rarely discussed but often present element in large excavations performed outside the United States and the United Kingdom. Their presence evokes the Victorian era of archaeology; large expanses of oddly-dressed men working with picks and shovels, directed by a man in a pith helmet and perfectly clean khakis. While this is becoming rare (indeed this method is heavily critiqued) it is still employed in large excavations. Some governments require foreign excavations to employ local people, and in sites in Greece, workmen are professionals unto themselves, often more familiar with the archaeological remains than their student "supervisors." In still other excavations, workmen are not allowed to excavate the "real" archaeology, but are employed to move our already-excavated spoil or to lift sandbags. While there is a wide range of experience and interaction between foreign excavations and local people available, archaeologists receive no training in interpersonal management or customs. Yet we form relationships with these workmen and learn from each other. They become our friends and workmates but they still occupy the margins in archaeology--excluded in publications, never cited, and rarely thanked.

Starkey comes close to these workmen, as close as we do as archaeologists digging beside them, foregrounding their experience while allowing the background to fade away. You attention is not drawn to the ground, to what the man is digging, but to his face, to the conversation that is going on with the two men in the background, and to their very distinctive traditional dress. The social distance between the photographer and his subject is present, but is downplayed--Starkey does not photograph these men from the top of the trench, from the back, or as convenient human scales, but brings out the intimacy of the space occupied while doing archaeology.

Starkey also includes a photograph of the workmen being searched each day as they leave site. While there may be an on-site intimacy of shared endeavor, the workmen still remain separate and untrusted.

As an archaeologist deeply interested in photography and representation, I take Starkey's photographs as an object lesson in visual anthropology. His photographs highlight a tension in archaeological practice that goes unmentioned both in our academic literature and in popular news stories about gold and treasure.

Colleen Morgan

*Thanks to Ryan Anderson who invited this contribution and to Jerome Starkey for allowing me to link to and discuss his photography of the excavations at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan.

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