Archaeology as a discipline exists thanks to the interconnectivity of multiple communities of practice across the world. Such communities have not yet been the focus of any explicit attention on the part of archaeologists. The history of archaeology, for instance, has examined the ebb-and-flow of different theoretical paradigms, the evolution of scientific technology in the field, and the manner in which ideologies such as nationalism, colonialism or imperialism influence what we know about the past. Many of these (Trigger 1989; Murray and Evans 2008) are excellent studies. As far as I am aware, however, none of them detail what archaeological practice really is.
Elsewhere, other scholars have provided more critical accounts of archaeological practice (Edgeworth 2006; Hamilakis and Anagnostopolous 2009). These ethnographies of archaeology, however, never focus explicitly on community as the source of practice. Matt Edgeworth (2003: 41–48), for instance, in his thought-provoking Acts of Discoveries, examines archaeologists’ ‘social transactions’ without necessarily considering the team itself as a whole. More generally, if the decisions or interactions of particular individuals on a site are described, it is the act of ‘digging’ as a group that is never entirely mapped out.
The term community is far from absent in the archaeological literature. It is generally employed to describe the ancient communities of the past or the local communities of the present living near the archaeological sites themselves (Marshall 2002; Atalay 2012; Rosenzweig and Dissard 2013). In both cases, these communities are almost always them and only rarely us. And yet, teams in the field oftentimes operate as communities of practice without necessarily being aware of it. In fact, it is perhaps because communities are so pervasive in archaeology that we tend to forget about them.
This article remedies the lack of analysis of archaeological practice at the level of the group, an unchartered territory between the individual and the institutional, and deliberately adopts community as the scale of analysis in order to better examine what it is that archaeologists do in the field. The Keban Dam Rescue Project, undertaken in Eastern Turkey from 1966 to 1975, serves here as a specific case-study to examine archaeological excavations as communities of practice.
In the 1960s, the building of a mega-dam at Keban on the shores of the Upper Euphrates presented an immense threat to the region’s archaeology. Still, a rescue project designed to study its ancient sites and monuments before their inundation almost never saw the light of day. Archaeologists at the time had heard of the UNESCO-led salvage efforts that took place during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt (Hassan 2007). In Turkey, however, surveys and excavations of this magnitude had never been undertaken, yet alone imagined. No clear idea existed of what ‘rescue’ actually entailed. Until Keban, decade-long excavations focusing on single sites had prevailed over swift recovery of information from entire landscapes threatened by development.
A reaction from Ankara was slow to come. No state institution or government branch was set up to organise last minute salvage excavations. It is this lack of response at the national level that led a few enthusiastic individuals to act. A small committee first met in Ankara to initiate the international and multidisciplinary Keban Dam Rescue Project. This small group of established professors, university administrators and government representatives attended to the most pressing issues. An initial survey was launched in October 1966 (Erder 1967), followed by another one a year later (Whallon and Kantman 1969a, 1969b); the area’s most prominent sites were then given to all volunteers interested in excavating them; a fundraiser was instigated in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet (1968). Headquarters were later improvised in Elazığ’s soon-to-be-inaugurated Euphrates University, as well as a publishing office in Ankara for the project’s final and preliminary reports, the Keban Project Publications.1
Excavations finally began during the summer of 1968 when twelve teams arrived in the region (see Map 1 above). The archaeologists did not work under particularly favorable conditions, at least not ones they had been accustomed to. The villages where they resided possessed few amenities. Running water and telephone lines were scarce. Electricity was only accessible in larger towns. A functioning sewage system constituted a luxury. Moreover, the area remained difficult to access. A military airport in Elazığ (some 40 km from Keban) had been opened in 1938, and civilian flights had started using it as early as the 1960s. Reaching the sites themselves, however, was still challenging, as only a few roads were asphalted at the time. Eastern Turkey in the 1960s had yet to be ‘opened’ to the rest of the world and fully impacted by infrastructural development.2
Archaeologists nonetheless managed to come together at Keban and face these somewhat harsh conditions as a group. Each team was composed of different research profiles: botanists, architects, zoologists, anthropologists, geologists, as well as professional restorers, draftsmen, photographers, statisticians and engineers who worked alongside the archaeologists, some of them in the trenches themselves. In addition, several ethnographers and sociologists came to study the region’s soon-to-be-displaced population (Durul 1969; Silier 1976; Koyunlu 1982). All of these scientists, whose training had been in anything but field archaeology, were nonetheless made integral parts of the rescue project.
Keban also brought different countries together. Most of the researchers came from Turkey, with Istanbul University, Ankara University, and Middle East Technical University (hereafter METU) leading the way. Other nations such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, Ireland and the Netherlands also joined in. Previously, Turkish and foreign archaeologists had only rarely worked together in the field, but Keban gave them an opportunity to interact more regularly. Turkish scientists, on the one hand, gained insights in methods and theories from their foreign colleagues, who were usually more experienced and better trained. Foreigners, on the other hand, depended on their Turkish coworkers for more practical reasons, such as breaking the language barrier with local people.
The fact that no one knew precisely when the dam would be finished had an unexpected effect. If archaeologists oftentimes wondered how much time was left before the complete inundation of their sites, the situation of emergency actually brought them to rely more on each other. The excavations themselves were all situated within a relatively small area on the shores of the Euphrates River. This proximity facilitated communication, fostered exchange and encouraged collaboration. Ufuk Esin, director of the Tepecik excavations, describes this particular intellectual atmosphere in the Keban Project Publications:
‘Frequent visits were made to the Tepecik excavations by the distinguished experts of Korucutepe, Norşun Tepe, and the Universities of Chicago and İstanbul excavation teams, during which exchanges of ideas took place. Prof. R. J. Braidwood gave an interesting and wide-ranging talk, on his researches on the beginning of the food producing-stage which was followed by a discussion. Free days were utilised for further training of the students, and study trips were made to other excavation sites in the district. This enabled the students to obtain information concerning the finds and methods employed in various excavation sites.’ (Esin 1972: 149)
The rescue project eventually ended in 1975 when the area studied was no longer accessible. Over the course of eight seasons, a total of 28 sites had been excavated (see Table 1 below). Despite the initial absence of funds, the relatively small number of volunteers, and the fact that an international and multidisciplinary rescue project of this scale had never been undertaken in Turkey before, Keban is remembered today as a ‘successful operation’ in the history of Turkish archaeology (Erder 1978: 3).
|Ağın – Kalayciktepe||1968–1972||Ümit Serdaroğlu||Ankara University|
|Ağın – Kiliseyazısı Höyüğü||1969||Ümit Serdaroğlu||Ankara University|
|Aşvan Kale||1968–1973||David H. French||BIAA2|
|Çayboyu||1970–1971||David H. French||BIAA|
|Değirmentepe||1973||Refik Duru||Istanbul University|
|Fatmalı, Kalecik Höyüğü1||1968||Robert Whallon Jr. & H.T. Wright||University of Michigan|
|Han Ibrahim Şah Höyüğü||1970–1971||Hayri Ertem||Ankara University|
|Haraba – Şimşat Kalesi||1969–1973||Baki Öğün||Ankara University|
|Hubusu – Körtepe||1972||Harald Hauptmann||DAI3|
|Karataş Kayaaltı Sığınağı||1969–1972||Kılıç Kökten||Ankara University|
|Korucutepe||1968–1972||Maurits van Loon & Hans G. Güterbock||University of Amsterdam & University of Chicago|
|1973–1975||Hayri Ertem||Ankara University|
|Kurupinar||1971||David H. French||BIAA|
|Küllününini Mağarası||1971||Kılıç Kökten||Ankara University|
|Pağnik Öreni||1968–1971||Richard P. Harper||BIAA|
|Pulur (Sakyol) Höyüğü||1968–1971||Hamit Zübeyr Koşay||Ministry of Culture|
|Taşkun Kale||1973||David French||BIAA|
|Taşkun Mevkii||1971–1973||David French||BIAA|
|Tepecik Höyüğü||1968–1974||Ufuk Esin||Istanbul University|
|Tülintepe||1971–1974||Ufuk Esin & Güven Arsebük||Istanbul University|
|Yeniköy Höyüğü||1972||Hamit Zübeyr Koşay||Ministry of Culture|
Keban does indeed represent a unique moment. The project was initiated by METU’s Kemal Kurdaş and Istanbul University’s Halet Çambel whose energy and vision rallied different scientists around their cause. It was supervised, at least for the most part, outside of Turkey’s usual heritage institutions by members of METU’s relatively young faculty. It was the first time, and perhaps the only time, that such a large number of excavations were monitored all at once by such a loose and improvised structure. The excavations themselves were led by archaeologists whose enthusiasm and determination forged solidarity in the field.
The participants I was able to interview often described the rescue project as having taken place in a collegial, even friendly environment. Some of them even referred to its intellectual atmosphere as the Keban ‘spirit.’ But, what exactly does that mean? I believe the rescue project’s ‘spirit’ is to be found in the group itself. Again, notwithstanding differences in disciplinary expertise and national origins, archaeologists and other scientists were able to coalesce as a community of practice in an effort to rescue the past of a region about to be submerged. Other factors such as the adverse working and living conditions, the necessity to rescue as quickly as possible, and the vicinity of the sites brought researchers to unite in the field.
Keban, finally, was carried out during an unusually peaceful period for the region, just before the start of the armed conflict across Eastern Turkey between the Turkish military and Kurdish guerrilla groups like the PKK in the 1980s. The Keban Dam was followed by the building of other mega-infrastructure projects, first on the Euphrates (Karakaya and Atatürk Dams in the 1980s, Birecik and Karkamıș Dams in the 1990s) and later on the Tigris River (Ilisu Dam in the 2000s and 2010s). All of these constructions were preceded by salvage excavations like the ones carried out at Keban. For different reasons, however, including the heightened presence of the military in the region due to the civil war, the same collegiality would not be found again in these subsequent projects.
It is all of these factors combined that created Keban’s collegial atmosphere. However, it is not the ‘spirit’ itself that created the community. A spirit, just like a shared passion for the past, might create some kind of solidarity in a group, but it will not be enough to sustain a community. The notion of spirit describes Keban’s collegiality well enough. Something else, however, was necessary to reinforce the members’ already strong bonds and push researchers to coalesce as a community. And this is to be found, I argue, in what they did on the sites themselves. It is through their practice, in other words, and not just in spirit, that archaeologists in the field came together as a group.
‘Digging’ is perhaps the first word someone will associate with archaeology. What archaeologists do on a site, however, cannot be narrowed down to ‘digging’ only. The tools of archaeology are not limited to pickaxes, shovels and trowels. Archaeological practice is constituted instead of hundreds of different acts, most of them having nothing to do with removing earth from the ground. Ufuk Esin again illustrates this point:
‘The time remaining from the actual work of excavation was, as in previous years, devoted to the restoration, classification, filing, card-indexing, photography and sketching of the excavation material. At the same time “systematic surface collection” was carried on with the aim of establishing the distribution area of both the Tepecik and Tülintepe mounds.’ (Esin 1974: 123)
Here, a series of activities (restoring, classifying, filing, card-indexing, photographing, sketching, collecting) carried out in the field is enumerated. Usually not mentioned in a site report, a wide range of techniques, specific means to an end, used to produce scientific knowledge about the past is disclosed. Elsewhere in the report we read about drawing, recording, organizing, cleaning, cataloguing, archiving, sorting, analyzing, identifying, processing, filing, as well as a countless number of other acts performed to transform a mound of earth into an outdoor laboratory.
Archaeological practice, however, is not everything archaeologists do in the field. None of the activities listed above, for instance, are ever carried out alone. An isolated act on a site would not make much sense on its own, quickly becoming futile or absurd if undertaken outside an archaeological community: ‘Practice does not exist in the abstract. It exists because people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one another’ (Wenger 1998: 73). Excavations are made up of actions whose significance is constantly being mediated within a group. What archaeologists do, in other words, only makes sense when shared with others, to the point that archaeological ‘practice’ and archaeological ‘community’ can never be understood separately. It is collectively that archaeologists make what excavations are in practice, and it is in their practice that archaeologists make what excavations are collectively.
The concept ‘community of practice’ was first developed precisely to grasp this relationship within a more general social theory of learning (Lave and Wenger 1991). Moreover, community and practice are inseparable when articulated around the following three dimensions (Wenger 1998: 73–84). First of all, a community of practice exists thanks to its participants’ mutual engagement. An archaeological community of practice is more than a group of friends spending time together. Archaeologists at Keban assembled for a relatively short period of time in the field and sustained dense relations with one another. They all shared an active participation in the project, mutually engaging around what they were to do. It is important here to remember that such communities are less defined by what their members do, but more by the way in which they do it collectively. And, what often differentiates a community of practice from, for example, a personal network, is the quality of the relationship among its different members, a particular kind of bond between participants continuously reinforced by their mutual engagement in what they are doing.
Likewise, a community of practice is more than just a group of people mindlessly completing chores because they were told to do so by a superior. Instead, a community of practice consists in a joint enterprise. That enterprise constitutes more than just the tasks that need to be completed by its members and more than the totality of individual goals and common objectives in the group. Instead it consists of all the problems and solutions systematically being shared and discussed within the community. Here, Wenger places the emphasis on joint precisely because the enterprise is constantly up for negotiation. A sort of passive participation on an excavation site might create unity in a team, but it will not be enough to sustain a community. Individuals are brought together instead to work within an area of knowledge that is continuously being explored and developed, questioned and negotiated.
Third of all, a community of practice possesses a shared repertoire. This is defined by ‘routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions, or concepts that the community has produced or adopted in the course of its existence, and which have become part of its practice’ (Wenger 1998: 83). On an excavation site, a shared repertoire can correspond to a team’s specific style or discourse, including such things as excavation tools, artifacts unearthed, daily schedules, site reports, or even shared stories and inside jokes among team members. Again, members of a community unite around what they are to do and how they are to do it. An excavation’s shared repertoire is made up of the objects and ideas around which archaeological practice begins to make sense. It is, in other words, archaeological practice reified. And, oftentimes, it is the most visible sign that a community of practice is indeed thriving on an excavation site.
It is around these three key terms (mutual engagement, joint enterprise, shared repertoire) that practice becomes the source of a community. At Keban, rescuing the past took place following a tacit knowledge of archaeological practice. Despite differences in academic interests, theoretical inclinations, disciplinary specialties or national traditions, archaeologists and others united in the field around what they were to do. These researchers coalesced as a group in their shared commitment to study the past of this soon-to-be-submerged region, constantly negotiating the manner in which historic landscapes should be surveyed, ancient monuments preserved, and archaeological sites excavated. They exchanged information, helped each other, learned from one another, and sustained dense relations to achieve their joint objectives. Again, it was in their practice that researchers made what the rescue project was collectively, and it was collectively that researchers made what the rescue project was in practice.
Keban constituted a learning experience for an entire generation of scientists. It offered a young cohort of academics, many of them in their 30s, their first fieldwork experience. For example, Cevat Erder, who led the initial survey with a team of graduate students, was a newly appointed professor at METU. The project was a productive learning experience for Mehmet Özdoğan as well, who launched his career at Tepecik after participating in the joint Istanbul-Chicago Southeast Anatolian Prehistoric Project and before becoming one of Turkey’s most prominent archaeologists. Elsewhere, Harald Hauptmann at Norşuntepe felt the responsibility, bestowed upon him by the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul and its director Rudolf Naumann, to successfully excavate the region’s largest mound. Others also had to demonstrate their worth to the ones skeptical of the rescue project in the first place, like David French at the Aşvan sites, for instance, who felt his superiors in London ‘breathing down his neck.’3
This new generation experimented with freshly developed tools at the time, many of which, like the surveyor’s levels and theodolites, were still in a trial-and-error mode. Water sieving machines used to sort micro faunal and floral remains were also tested by some at Keban. Another groundbreaking invention and original tool at the time, a computer, was later used to refine the pottery classification established during the 1967 survey. Not all of these new techniques were successful at first. The radio-magnetic surveys carried out to locate buried architecture before actually physically unearthing it seemed promising at first (Yaramancı 1970, 1971). In the end, however, the magnetometer achieved limited results, leading some to wonder what precisely the machine could do (Hauptmann 2010: personal communication, January 22).
Similarly, a few samples were taken from Keban to a newly established carbon-14 dating laboratory at METU. The results of this pioneering technique were less than satisfactory but are nonetheless remembered today as a first in Turkey. Elsewhere, the grid system, which all archaeologists take for granted now, was also developing into one of the discipline’s most common tools. Ufuk Esin tested the grid at Tepecik, but quickly realized that it had not been measured correctly during the first season:
‘In 1968 some errors were discovered in the topographic plan of the mound and its environs. Until the mistakes were corrected the trenches were labeled not according to the grid system, but in alphabetical order… During the 1969 season these mistakes were corrected. Consequently in 1969 we began to use the grid system again.’ (Esin 1971: 120)
Such innovative techniques like the grid system had to be learned and experimented with in the field itself. We should not forget that Keban took place at the height of the New Archaeology, a time when Science and Technology promised more objectivity in the production of archaeological knowledge. Thus, new tools were accompanied by a renewed faith in science, which also participated in creating the Keban ‘spirit.’ Moreover, the surveyor’s levels, theodolites, sieving machines, computers, magnetometers, grid system, and carbon-14 were key in forming the project’s communities themselves. The tools helped some researchers who knew, or learned, how to use them integrate the group, while also excluding others who might have been less accustomed to them.
Above, I discussed how the term ‘community of practice’ was originally developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger within a broader social theory of learning. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, the two authors describe the process of learning in a variety of ethnographic case-studies: elementary school children learning how to solve math problems through collaboration; apprentice tailors in Liberia who learn their craft by ‘stealing with their eyes’ from their masters as well as their fellow tailors; members of Alcoholic Anonymous groups learning to articulate a narrative about their struggle with alcohol by listening to the stories of older members of the community who have already undergone the transformative process from ‘drinking non-alcoholics’ to ‘non-drinking alcoholics’ (Lave and Wenger 1991).
Most learning, Lave and Wenger explain, does not take place passively, as one might assume, reading a book or sitting in a classroom. It is instead a situated practice that happens when individuals actively participate in the social world. Above all else it is a transitory, fluid and directional process. In all of their examples, learning occurs as an individual moves from the margins to the core of the community of practice. This movement is what they refer to as legitimate peripheral participation. It allows an individual to learn what to do and how to do it while simultaneously integrating the community from the outside in. It is this same movement inwards one observes on an archaeological site as new participants integrate the team while learning how to execute some of the steps necessary to carry out the excavations.
At Keban researchers experimented with new tools while becoming members of the rescue project. As peripheral members of the community learned to use these new methods, they moved from its margins to its center. Keban might have been full of unknowns at first. Its participants oftentimes did not know what to expect in the field. They made mistakes and ran into unexpected problems. They had to overcome many trials and errors, as well as many absences and uncertainties, by experimenting and improvising solutions all the time. And, when experimentation or improvisation was not enough, they relied on each other to solve unexpected issues in the field. In the end, it was precisely these challenges that conditioned the archaeologists to unite as they learned to find solutions and solve problems through cooperation.
Again, a shared interest for the past is not enough to create an archaeological community of practice. ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’ (Wenger-Trayner 2015). I argue, then, that archaeological excavations are learning processes. What united the members of the rescue project at Keban is not only to be found in what they did and how they did it, but also in the manner in which they learned how to do it. It was the participants’ regular interactions that not only sustained unity, but also brought forth learning in the group. In the end, archaeologists and other scientists who came to Keban in an effort to rescue its past learned how to do archaeology in the field by simply doing archaeology.
The term community emphasizes togetherness. Here, it conveniently expresses the rescue project’s collegial atmosphere. I do not wish, however, to exaggerate the group’s harmony. Keban as a community was far from ideal. There were plenty of tensions, disagreements, jealousies, cliques and gossip. It brought a few universities to collaborate, for instance, but did not erase their existing rivalries. Hierarchies were also strictly respected. Keban witnessed a clash between two generations. If younger scholars were indeed given a chance in the field, they remained, from a distance, under the strict supervision of more senior colleagues. A few researchers played a central role in the project, while others acted more passively on its peripheries. Moreover, the rescue project in spite of its multidisciplinary dimension remained first and foremost archaeological. Other ‘side’ projects by botanists, architects or sociologists were carried out only if time and money allowed.
Furthermore, Keban’s international dimension did little to disturb the unequal balance of power engrained in Turkish archaeology at the time, which made learning amongst teams somewhat unidirectional. European and American teams dominated the discipline in the 1960s and managed to excavate the Upper Euphrates’ most prestigious sites. They imposed their research agenda on Turkish teams that remained for the most part passive recipients of foreign theory. Keban also took place at the height of the Cold War. As such, no scholars from the Soviet Union were invited to the Upper Euphrates. Armenian archaeologists, for instance, could not work in Turkey at the time, even if some would have liked to excavate in what had once been part of Greater Armenia. In addition, manual labour hired in nearby villages had almost no stake in Keban’s research agenda. Even though the ‘digging’ would never have taken place without them, these local people remained excluded from the excavations and were given few opportunities to learn and integrate with the teams themselves.
Communities of practice are usually tightly defined groups with strict boundaries. As such, the term makes us think of both inclusions and exclusions. This last remark also has broader implications at the epistemic level. Archaeological knowledge can be understood as the property of archaeological communities because they are precisely the ones that decide what counts as the archaeological record, what constitutes acceptable facts, what represents credible explanations. As such, the theoretical concept I have adopted and developed in this article in order to think about excavations is not only key in grasping the process of learning, but also in understanding the social fabric of knowledge itself. It is important to remember that the shape of Keban’s archeological communities—who made it in the group and who remained on its margins—directly affected the kind of knowledge produced.
In other words, as teams working in the Upper Euphrates defined their research goals, scientific identities and excavation styles, they simultaneously delineated the kind of discoveries they made about the region’s history and prehistory, including and excluding specific facts, objects and stories, accounting for but also omitting certain archaeological sites, levels and periods. In the end, the term community of practice not only makes us think about what archaeologists do on a site, but also what they might forget to do, or what they might, more or less deliberately, sideline, erase or throw away. The rescue project at Keban could have been a chance in the 1960s to explore the Upper Euphrates’ more inconvenient past for instance. And, to be fair, a few researchers attempted to do so, albeit without much success or determination. In the end, the more contested or taboo history of Eastern Turkey, if not completely ignored, remained sidelined by Keban’s scientific communities, left for others in the future perhaps to explore more thoroughly and study more critically.
1Headed by Irem Acaroğlu and Sevim Pekman, this temporary publishing office edited the Keban Project Publications, seven volumes between 1969 and 1982 written in English, German, or Turkish, and accompanied by a Turkish or English translation, that retraced each team’s work from the first season in 1968 to the last one spanning 1974 and 1975 (Pekman 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1982). The office would later also help to publish some of the project’s final reports.
2Zeynep Kezer (2014) shows how efforts by the Turkish state to shape the Upper Euphrates, a ‘borderscape’ between Elazığ and Dersim, through extensive infrastructural interventions began as early as the 1930s.
3On one occasion, the British Institute of Archaeology asked David French to fly back to London in order to justify his field methods. On another occasion, it was representatives from London who flew to Eastern Turkey to check on his progress and how the institute’s money was being spent in the field (French 2012: personal communication, June 5).
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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