Common Ground: Archaeological Practice and Local Communities in Southeastern Turkey

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Andrew Mellon, ANET, Archaeology, ASOR, Laurent Dissard, Melissa Rosenweig, Pennsylvania Penn Humanities Forum, turkey, University of Chicago
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What is the proper relationship between archaeologist and a local community? Whose needs have priority? In this abridged piece from Near Eastern Archaeology, Melissa Rosenzweig and Laurent Dissard put this in concrete terms – when a family wants to bury a loved one on an archaeological site.
Figure 1. Eastward view of the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by H. McDonald.

Figure 1. Eastward view of the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by H. McDonald.

By: Melissa Rosenzweig and Laurent Dissard

For excavations to remain inclusive and viable, community archaeology must provide for non-archaeologists to pursue their concerns in and around sites. We discovered, through a funeral procession, that ceding to local affairs only preserves the integrity of the archaeological project, and expands the value of sites as locations with scientific, historic, and contemporary meaning.

Figure 2. Map of the village of Tepe and the archaeological site of Ziyaret Tepe, adapted with permission from the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Expedition. Inset map of Turkey adapted from Ronayne 2005: figure 1:7.

Figure 2. Map of the village of Tepe and the archaeological site of Ziyaret Tepe, adapted with permission from the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Expedition. Inset map of Turkey adapted from Ronayne 2005: figure 1:7.

Since 1997, a multidisciplinary and international team of archaeologists has been working at the site of Ziyaret Tepe in southeastern Turkey to uncover its Late Assyrian settlement (ca. 900–600 BCE), as well historical remains from the late third millennium to the Ottoman period. Excavations have taken place every summer for the past 15 years, as part of a larger salvage project preceding the construction of the Ilisu hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River,  which will flood areas northeast of the mound. The summer arrival of the archaeologists constitutes a regular, seasonal event for the people of Tepe, the host community.

Figure 3. View of the village of Tepe from the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by A. Wodzińska.

Figure 3. View of the village of Tepe from the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by A. Wodzińska.

Tepe is small town (or belde) of around 8,000 people located on the southern bank of the Tigris River in the modern province of Diyarbakır. Tepe’s community is largely comprised of underprivileged, Kurdish-speaking residents, but four large, wealthier families have lived in the region for several generations. These well-established families generate income from cash cropping their lands and employ Tepe’s other residents as seasonal farm laborers. The archaeologists also hire many local men as manual laborers for the excavation.

Figure 4. The cemetery located atop the Ziyaret Tepe mound, adjacent to the excavation trenches. Photograph by M. Rosenzweig.

Figure 4. The cemetery located atop the Ziyaret Tepe mound, adjacent to the excavation trenches. Photograph by M. Rosenzweig.

Early during a recent excavation season, a respected female member of one of these powerful families in Tepe passed away. This family decided that the matriarch’s final resting place would be among her relatives’ graves on the cemetery atop Ziyaret Tepe. Although Tepe contains several available burial places, the top of the mound carries special significance as a graveyard for this particular family.

Figure 5. Excavation on the high mound, with the cemetery in the background.

Figure 5. Excavation on the high mound, with the cemetery in the background. Photograph by Ian J. Cohn.

The site itself, Ziyaret Tepe, obtains its name from these present-day tombs, the word ziyaret referring both to the act of pilgrimage to local sacred sites and to the religious sites themselves. More specifically, the mound attracts visitors to a türbe, or small shrine, built around the tomb of Sheikh Muhammad, an honored religious leader who lived and died in Tepe several decades ago. For these reasons, the people of Tepe value the mound of Ziyaret Tepe as a sacred burial site and a destination for memorial and prayer. Generations before archaeologists arrived to perform their own scientific pilgrimage, local people have been coming to Ziyaret Tepe to visit the cemetery, bury friends and family, and remember loved ones.

It is extremely rare for an interment to take place on the mound, much less in the midst of a field season, and all parties were unclear how to proceed. The wishes of the deceased’s family brought the excavations to a temporary halt so that various stakeholders could gather to discuss the situation. Present were the deceased’s senior family members, Ziyaret Tepe’s project director, the state’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism representative, as well as the Diyarbakır Museum’s director, the local jandarma (local military police) captain, and the town’s imam.

Figure 6. Excavation in the lower town of Ziyaret Tepe, with the high mound visible in the background. Photograph by Ian J. Cohn.

Figure 6. Excavation in the lower town of Ziyaret Tepe, with the high mound visible in the background. Photograph by Ian J. Cohn.

Each attendee represented one of the relationships that animates the community, within which the Ziyaret Tepe project operates. But prior to this event, this group had never actually come together to discuss the site and its administration. At this rare but significant meeting, two critical outcomes unfolded for the community archaeology that we advocate: (1) Ziyaret Tepe’s community context became fully visible from the interplay of history, politics, and culture of each representative, and (2) the participants acknowledged and reaffirmed the site’s meaningfulness as both an archaeological and sacred place.

Tepe’s history informs the ways in which its residents understand the Ziyaret Tepe project. Before the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Kurdish-speaking residents of Tepe enjoyed relative prosperity and independence vis-à-vis the central authorities in and out of the region. In the 1930s, however, the government in Ankara, with an eye towards strengthening Turkish national identity, intensified the restructuring its southeastern provinces. Officials designated the city of Diyarbakır, 65 km west of Tepe, as the capital of a province with the same name, and declared the Turkish-speaking village of Bismil head of a provincial district that included Tepe.

This political decision greatly influenced the social and economic development of each town. On the one hand, as a district center (or belediye), Bismil profited from the business and amenities generated by state investment, including new roads, schools, and banks, as well as a post office and hospital. On the other hand, Tepe’s residents would not witness major infrastructure development, such as electricity, until the 1980s, when the migration of people caught in the conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) dramatically increased Tepe’s population.

It was within this political history, as representatives of both a historically Kurdish village and a state-run municipality, that the family of the deceased approached the other authority figures gathered to discuss the burial. Powerful by local standards, the Kurdish relatives of the deceased nonetheless found themselves requesting permission from Turkish officials and foreign visitors to perform one of their culture’s most sacred traditions. Politics tempered the family’s inclusion in the decision-making process, and the mourners would gauge the other participants’ regard for local, Kurdish concerns from the outcome.

The state representative and museum director, both sensitive to the local politics, found themselves weighing the petition against the possibility of breaking protocol by allowing private individuals to conduct a burial on state land. Designated by the state as an archaeological site, the mound could no longer legally accommodate new burials. These officials had to navigate the expectations of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, to assess the loss of cultural heritage, and of a local family and their religious leader (imam), to honor the wishes of the bereaved and respect Muslim burial customs. Moreover, whatever verdict reached would be enforced by the jandarma, charged with security in rural areas, as well as set a precedent for future activities on the mound. The state representative and museum director faced a common cultural heritage problem: negotiating between the protection of the past and the preservation of present, local customs.

Into this already complicated situation entered the archaeologists, who come to Ziyaret Tepe with their own objectives and obligations; namely, to conduct scientific research by the rules set forth by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. With the power to explore Ziyaret Tepe, they depend upon the Ministry for access to the site and upon the regional museum for support and resources, including storage facilities and artifact curation. The overriding authority of the Ministry and the project’s reliance upon the museum limited the project director’s ability to alter archaeological practice and easily accommodate the unexpected funeral.

The meeting consequently exposed a limitation of all archaeological work conducted under state license: despite the unique concerns of individuals, organizations, or institutions involved in the research, the site is ultimately the property of the state and subject to its legal discretion. In other words, the scientific space of excavation is always political and, more often than not, contested.

The archaeologists’ desire to observe the protocols of the Ministry challenged their equal commitment to maintaining good relations with the residents of Tepe, upon whom they rely for labor, logistics, and hospitality. Since arriving in Tepe, the project has become a major seasonal employer for the village, providing a much-needed source of revenue Modern water management systems have since become widespread in Tepe’s fields, making summer cropping jobs more available. But the expectation of work on the archaeological project remains and the excavation regularly employs around sixty men, some of whom have been with the project for many years.

Figure 7. Villagers hired as laborers headed to the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by M. Rosenzweig.

Figure 7. Villagers hired as laborers headed to the mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by M. Rosenzweig.

Archaeologists are grateful for the Ministry’s and Museum’s support, but mindful of these departments’ authority. So too are the residents of Tepe appreciative for the summer work, but cognizant of the archaeologists’ ability to wield disproportionate power and resources during their short, annual stays. The archaeologists have the means to procure a great deal of labor and supplies; the social capital to transcend traditional religious, gender, and kinship boundaries; and the political clout to negotiate with, and sometimes overrule, local leadership. For the people of Tepe, community archaeology meant just how much consideration the community would receive at the hands of archaeologists. The pronouncement on the funeral would determine the relations between the archaeologists and the locals.

In the end, the funeral took place upon the mound and over one hundred people attended. The interment of little consequence to the overall excavation; the 2 x 2 m grave constituted less than 0.00001 percent of the site’s surface. The ground ceded in this decision, trivial in its physical properties, yielded enormous significance. The archaeological director worked with state officials to conceive of the mound as something other than a state-owned property or a scientific space for excavation. In addition, the foreign team and the Turkish authorities made room for non-official, local practices that, as archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis explains, “treat[ed] material objects of the past as integral to the routines of daily life and the fabric of social space” among living communities. In that way, they achieved the aims of community archaeology and found common ground.

The decision, small in its scale, but large in its scope, paid deference to the religious and cultural claims of the mourners, who sought the right to continue their burial tradition. It accorded recognition to the people of Tepe, who sought proof that the archaeologists and attendant officials cared for the community that lived and worked beside them, even when their concerns did not respect those of the archaeologists. Their voices mattered, not just in the archaeological work, but in their daily, non-archaeological lives. Local leaders and community members likewise made compromises that secured the legitimacy of the archaeological project. The funeral attendees respected the boundaries of the excavation, and all parties agreed to limit future interments to the existing empty plots of the cemetery, where archaeological work is already precluded, so as to prevent further expansion of the burial ground.

Figure 8. The funeral taking place on the high mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by M. W. Monroe.

Figure 8. The funeral taking place on the high mound of Ziyaret Tepe. Photograph by M. W. Monroe.

Collaboration achieved good will on all sides, even though the group had to confront competing claims and conflicting commitments. The concession to non-archaeological concerns did not undermine the scientific project, and in fact garnered a greater respect for the excavation and its team members. By valuing the local community’s relationship with Ziyaret Tepe, the archaeologists gained perspective on their own work. Acknowledging the mound as something other than an archaeological space increased, rather than decreased, the meaningfulness of the place, and successfully crossed the past/present divide that inevitably accompanies all fieldwork. Consideration of local non-archaeological perceptions of the mound made these cross-community connections and insights possible. 

Melissa Rosenzweig is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Laurent Dissard is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Penn Humanities Forum.  

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