Reflexivity in Archaeological Field Diaries: Repetition, Knowledge, Power

I’m revisiting a quite provocative academic article that I read a year or so ago, because its central idea keeps floating to the top of my mind: Reflexive field diary-writing can actually empower junior archaeological workers (those who do the exhausting, tedious digging and cataloguing) because through this process they can claim interpretive agency. This feels relevant in some way to artistic and critical labor in my field, too, though I’m not sure how to articulate yet. (Something to come back to.)

Deep trench, Çatalhöyük, 2006. By Mark Nesbitt. From Wikimedia Commons. 

Deep trench, Çatalhöyük, 2006. By Mark Nesbitt. From Wikimedia Commons. 

The abstract of Alison Mickel’s “Reasons for Redundancy in Reflexivity: The Role of Diaries in Archaeological Epistemology” (2015) piqued my attention as the article promised to trace not only the history and uses of reflexive writing in relation to knowledge creation, but also pose questions of shifting authority and power relations in the discipline of archaeology.

In the article, Mickel observes that the contemporary archaeological diary, as used now at the Çatalhöyük site in Turkey, is part of a “local network of objects and inscriptive devices” (i.e., historical artifacts and the media used to record information about them, such as conventional pro forma, GPS location, and digital rendering). After uncovering linguistic patterns of repetition and differentiation between the diaries and the other inscriptive devices, Mickel argues that diaries motivate reflexive practice because they allow archaeological excavators to reclaim some agency in the interpretation of a huge range of disparate data in the face of “the reflexive obligation” in archaeology—that is, the disempowering understanding that objective knowledge is an impossible goal.

Mickel uses colloquial, personal, error-ridden, and emotional field diary quotations to first show that the diary database is a unique record of thought processes. This one is lovely:

We dug a little bit more around of skull we exposed some obsidian fragment …When i was digging more I saw the obsidian surface and it was polished … Suddenly I remembered last year. Also we found a fragment of obsidian mirror in the Mellarts fill in the South area. … After that mirror we changed our idea.

Next, she traces similar descriptive statements in more formal paperwork, such as catalogue information about artifacts’ locations and materials. By repeating their observations across reflexive diaries, formal paperwork, and databases, argues Mickel, lower-level workers seal their interpretations into the records that build scholarship.

In her conclusion, Mickel brings in politically or ethically committed theories, such as Michel Foucault’s concept of episteme—which describes social power relations that limit creation of knowledge within an academic discipline—but without explicitly commenting on the ethics of the conditions at Çatalhöyük. (Perhaps Mickel’s choice of Foucault’s theory is an implicit recognition of the ethical issues at stake? Or there’s an expectation that readers of Field Archaeology would already know? Realizing that in my own project, I’ll need to articulate this.)

Something else that struck me (perhaps because I’m making weekly public “diary entries” for Rewritings): Mickel doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that the Çatalhöyük diaries are intentionally public. She focuses on the network of professionals, theories, and inscriptive devices that the diaries act on and support. She does note that Çatalhöyük excavators can comment on each other’s diaries, but not that the diaries actually form a dynamic, public online database. At the Çatalhöyük project website, anyone can browse and perform searches on all of the diary entries and other documents through a simple blog-like interface. This is crucial to the project.

With this in mind, as Mickel comments on how the diary entries reflect, resist, and enhance the “reflexive obligation,” she might also consider a “public obligation.” I would define this as the need for a project to be visible to, and scrutinized by, the general public. This might be to meet the demands of funding bodies for measurable public impact and innovation (as in my current Sachs-funded project), in which case we could ask questions of the public performance of the role of researcher. Less cynically, and building on Mickel’s internet-based metaphor of a “local network,” we could consider the public diary database as part of a global network that encompasses much more than the artifacts and inscriptive devices at Çatalhöyük’s physical site. This could expand the practice of personal reflexivity into one of public accountability.