The heartache of fieldwork: The many vagaries of my practice

Our 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.
Our stellar 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.

I write this post from the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, where me and my team have been working for nearly four weeks this summer in our capacity as interpreters of the archaeological record for visiting audiences. We are responsible for all of Çatalhöyük’s on-site interpretation—the signage, maps, guidebooks, brochures, Visitor’s Centre displays, and presentation of the replica house. We evaluate visitor experience; we’ve been developing mobile applications and experimenting with more embodied, sensual engagements with the archaeological record; and this year we’re redesigning the Çatalhöyük website, and have initiated a short-term social media plan (see the site’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; we’re running them until Monday).

Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor's Centre in 2014. Photo by me.
Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor’s Centre in 2014. Photo by me.

Most readers of this blog will know that I’ve been working at Çatalhöyük for seven (!) years now. It’s been a major influencing factor on my career trajectory and my personal development, so much so that I think it’s difficult to articulate the profound impact it has had on who I am. I don’t think I’m unique in feeling such—indeed, given that I am on site for just a few weeks per year, as opposed to 2 months or more like many of the rest of the team, I would imagine (indeed, I know) that others have been impacted on a deeper level. For me, personally, I would describe the experience as a seesaw of emotions—from deep awe to real heartache, from rapture to exasperation. Moreover, I’ve worked at the site through very turbulent times, across a period of massive change in the longstanding team, and I first came to the project as a student, unknown, with little experience, and wholly intimidated by Çatalhöyük’s legacy. My entire professional orbit has thus been set in place during my time here.

I would say that I’m regularly filled with reverence when I walk around the site. The phenomenal thinkers that you have the opportunity to interact with, and the intellectual landscape of the research programme here, are unparalleled. But more so, the archaeology itself—the art, the burials, the stacks of interwoven homes, the view down 20+ metres of excavated earth, spanning more than a 1000 years of continuous human occupation—is breathtaking. And if you’re ever on the verge of becoming complacent about these things, then you need only give a tour of the site to visitors. Through them – people who’ve travelled across the world to get to this remote part of Turkey – it’s easy to see Çatalhöyük anew, full of wonderment and countless questions about the intriguing nature of social and material practice in the past. It’s inspiring and hopeful – it reminds you of everything that archaeology (and life more generally) has the capacity to be: a powerful connector of individuals at a local and a global level; a trigger for curiosity across space and time; a prompt for consideration about the future (see the fabulous Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage project for another stimulating example); a provocateur of critical questions about what it means to be human, about all that we share among us, and about how humanity differs—sometimes nearly incomprehensibly—both at any given moment and between generations. By this account, archaeology, at its best, can be a transcendent practice, creating a space for diversity, for self-reflection, for marvel, beauty, cooperation, change, critique and forethought.

This is why it’s an irony to me that, on a human level, I’ve found the fieldwork at Çatalhöyük very challenging. These challenges play out both intellectually (see below) and emotionally. In terms of the latter, it seems ludicrous to suggest that one can be lonely whilst constantly (and inescapably) surrounded by 100s of specialists and other site staff. And yet, if you’re not attached to a well-established group, and if you don’t spend the full field season on site, you become a bit of a free-floater, searching for companionship amidst a crowd that has already solidified its relationships. I would say I’m one of those floaters, trying to bond with others, but often thwarted because of my affinity for close, private friendships, which are hard to establish or maintain with so many people around. As a consequence, one’s confidence seems regularly on the verge of collapse, and a feeling of isolation—compounded by the fact that we are already relatively physically isolated—immediately sets in and affects day-to-day existence. My experience on other field projects has not been as acute as on this one, I presume because of their smaller scale.

On the other hand, since I moved to York and have been able to bring my own students with me and simultaneously work closely with many Turkish tourism undergrads, I’ve managed to make some of the strongest bonds ever. Over my period at Çatalhöyük, I’ve been involved in the training of dozens of students, and I’ve watched their careers bloom, seen them move on to incredible life adventures, and been galvanised by who they are and who they’re becoming. These have been amongst the most satisfying of fieldwork experiences for me, at the same time as I struggle with the sadness of letting go of them and learning to rebuild myself with a new team every year. It’s that instability—that ongoing reassembling of oneself in the wake of the loss of what’s effectively your family, and hence having few or no close confidantes on a persistent basis on site—which takes the most toll on my spirit.

Intellectually, working here has always been demanding. I’ve given several conference papers on this topic, and I’m writing up two articles on the subject right now, but my teams have been attempting, since 2009, to implement and evaluate a reflexive method for heritage interpretation, using Çatalhöyük as the primary case study. One would assume this would be the perfect location for such research, yet it has been a constant struggle here not only to have heritage interpretation recognised as an actual epistemologically-productive investigative endeavour (see more on this here), but to be granted access, resources, time, support and true consideration for our ‘slow’ philosophy (akin to Caraher’s work), our bespoke approach, and our multivocal paradigm. Shahina Farid’s brilliant critique (her whole chapter seems to be freely available on Google Books – please read it because it’s a must-know piece on the realities of reflexive practice) gets at many of the issues we face – although she speaks specifically from the point of view of excavation practice. In many ways, I feel the whole field of heritage studies compounds our problems, because so much of it amounts to little more than caustic criticism with scarcely any concern for the practicalities of everyday, on-site labour, expectation management or resourcing. Duncan Light (2015:192) touches on these matters in his review of Russell Staiff’s (2014) fascinating book Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation: Enchanting the Past-Future when he writes:

But while Re-imagining heritage interpretation is a forensic critique of current practice, Staiff offers little in the way of a road map to interpreters about how they could do things differently (beyond pointing to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia as a possible model). Indeed, the author rather sidesteps the issue by stating that this book is not a heritage interpretation manual.

Anyone who has worked at a site which aims to impact upon tens of thousands of visitors per year, on a miniscule budget, with a tiny timeframe for execution, modest (or few) technical resources, and a small or fleeting staff, knows just how difficult it is to be true to one’s philosophical ideals—to be experimental, vulnerable, and critically demanding—while staying accountable and achieving the required deliverables. It is in negotiating these dimensions, and understanding how they fold together and can come into compromise, that I think the most productive (albeit arduous) heritage practice emerges.

Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.
Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.

Despite such challenges, I’m confident that at Çatalhöyük we’ve put in place a meaningful, replicable model for heritage interpretation which is true to the always momentary, fluid and flexible motto of the site. We’ve used a similar approach in our fieldschools in York, and I’ve increasingly been running short-term PhD courses internationally (I’ll be at the University of Oslo in September to lead students through 2 days of app development, and I was in Paris in April as part of the terrific DialPast programme) where I teach hands-on critical heritage interpretation.

Also, in September I will be taking up the reins of a new and incredible project—in Egypt. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to work in Egypt, and more than this, it’s been made possible by the receipt of my first major academic grant, which buys me out of some of my academic post and gives me the freedom to expand my practice, to learn from others, and to continue to bridge the gap between archaeological theory and method, reflecting on the real-world intricacies of heritage interpretation via a series of site-based fieldschools in Egypt over the next two years. As I wrap up one field season here at Catal, then, and prepare for new horizons beginning in September, I’m feeling heartened. This is due in no small part to my girlfriends Michelle, Laia and Sophie who’ve taken me under their wings while here at Çatalhöyük for the past four weeks and given me strength in the face of many challenges; to Ian K. who arrived a few days ago and has energised us all; and to my amazing students and team who’ve exceeded all expectations and have become lifelong friends.

Thank you so much for your support – including all of you who read this blog from afar and have been generous over the years with your kind words, constructive critique, and belief in the power of archaeology to craft a better present and future.

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