The ‘Follow the Pots’ research program explores two interconnected sides of an archaeological looting story: the conventional archaeological investigation of the emergence of prehistoric urbanism and increasing social complexity in the Early Bronze Age of the southern Levant, and the multiple and contested values of this archaeological heritage to multiple stakeholders today.
What this means is that we study how archaeologists, people living in the southern Ghor, looters, intermediaries, museum administrators, government officials, antiquities dealers, and collectors think about, acquire, and use pots and other grave goods from the Early Bronze Age (EBA) cemeteries of Fifa, Bab adh-Dhra` and en-Naqa/es-Safi.
Follow the Pots (FTP) emerges from several years of archaeological fieldwork and analysis by Chesson, Hill, and Kersel, and more broadly the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain. In this examination of the social lives of archaeological objects, the artifacts have at least two lives as
(1) as grave goods in 5,000-year-old tombs; and
(2) as looted and excavated artifacts in the present, where they are launched on new lives as museum pieces, tourist trinkets, and archaeologically studied objects.
FTP arises from our realization that only by integrating ethnography and archaeology can we hope to produce a holistic and cohesive story about the use and reuse of these EBA materials.
Guiding Ideas and Questions for FTP:
What is community archaeology?
We are often asked what we mean by community archaeology: what constitutes community archaeology? How do we define it? Community archaeology is also referred to as indigenous archaeology, outreach, community-based, collaborative archaeology, participatory archaeology, postcolonial archaeology, or most often public archaeology. Can we define it? How do we practice it? Is there a template, a guide to best practice, a standard set of principles? Are there as many types of community archaeology as there are archaeologists?
Generally, community archaeology can be defined as archaeology by the people for the people. But sometimes defining the “people” (community) is incredibly challenging. For instance, what happens if there is more than one community? How do we know who belongs, or doesn’t, in a community? How is a community constituted and how is it defined? Communities involve all kinds of people who come together for all kinds of reasons – jobs, schools, a nice place to live, to be close to relatives – the causes are endless. Because so many different people make up a community, they can’t always come to a consensus on various issues that confront them. This is why we try to talk with as many people from the various communities associated with the Dead Sea Plain in Jordan. We want to include as many voices as possible in trying to understand how people interact with the landscape and the pots.
Archaeologists, especially historical archaeologists have been working with communities for years, but for those of us who work in prehistory it is a newer practice. For an excellent example of groundbreaking work in public/community archaeology at a Neolithic site is at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, under the direction of Ian Hodder. Talking to people about their interactions with the Early Bronze Age objects and landscapes is integral to a holistic approach to understanding the archaeology of the region.
We think that a key element of community archaeology is listening to local partners. We spend a lot of time drinking tea and coffee with people, listening to the stories of their childhood, their families, their neighborhoods, and the changing landscapes. The communities associated with Follow the Pots, are not just people from the Mazraa, es-Safi, and Fifa area, although they are our closest communities, and they are the people who have had the longest associations with these landscapes. Our communities also include the archaeologists, collectors, dealers, government employees, heritage experts, lawyers, intermediaries, museum professionals, students, and tourists – anyone with an interest (academic, artistic, economic, and/or professional) in the pots and the landscape of the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan.
How can archaeology serve the community in which it occurs?
We are often asked why anyone would agree to speak with us or why they would tell us about the sometimes illegal acts they are engaged in (looting, moving/selling/buying illegally excavated artifacts). What’s in it for the communities associated with these pots and landscapes?
It has been an eye opening experiences for us – when we started this research, we were amazed to find that people love to talk about themselves, their lives, their histories, and their places. Are part of our research into local interaction with the landscapes of the dead we are interested in coming up with strategies that will allow people to connect with landscape in a way that doesn’t involve illegal digging and removing pots. We are trying to understand “why looting matters” – if it matters because it is a source of income, we, in collaboration with locals, want to think about how the landscape might generate a different kind of employment, perhaps through environmentally sustainable heritage tourism.
Who can/should/must own (and control) the past? (archaeologists as stewards/experts/authorities; nation states and regional governing structures; local community members and landowners)
There is no easy answer to the question of “who owns the past?” The answer might seem obvious since every cultural object usually has an owner. However, things may get complicated because of various turns of history, when we factor in colonial enterprises, current law, and local practice.
In approaching our project, we first defer to the national antiquities laws (1976, 1988, 2003 amendments) in place in Jordan. Under Article 5 of Law no. 21 of 1988 “ownership of immovable antiquities shall be exclusively vested in the state”. But the question of “who owns the past” is more than just the legal definition, particularly when it comes to displaying, interpreting, and displaying the past. There is some urgency in examining this question due to the accelerated rate of destruction of archaeological sites and artifacts through unbridled development, illegal excavation, and a growing awareness that cultural heritage is an endangered non-renewable resource that must be protected and promoted for the general good of present and future generations. Beyond deferring to the law, we don’t really have answer to this question, but we do try to take into consideration all those who claim to own the past.
Despite two governmental amnesty-buyback programs (Bisheh 2001; Politis 1994, 2002) local and foreign archaeologists and Jordanian government officials continue to struggle to stem the tide of looting. By making the connection between poverty and archaeology explicit, examining how both archaeologists and residents value and use these heritage resources, and by encouraging dialogue between area looters, non-looters and archaeological officials, Follow the Pots recognizes that the way humans use material culture links to the past and to the present. We approach this difficult situation with empathy and openness to ensure that local voices are heard and realize that there are no “bad guys” in this scenario because all humans use and value material culture in many ways. Our goal lies in the application of our anthropological research to address the problem of looting on the southeastern Dead Sea, an activity entangled with poverty. It is hoped that the results of this research will provide the necessary data and grounding to assist in devising practical initiatives for ensuring that the area’s archaeological heritage resources are available for future generations, however they value the past.
How and why can objects have more than one life?
Much of our research into the various lives of pots from the Early Bronze Age cemeteries along the Dead Sea Plain is informed by the influential work of Arjun Appadurai (1986) on the social lives of things. We are fascinated by the lives the pots have lived as:
- Grave goods buried with various Early Bronze Age individuals
- Excavated archaeological artifacts that were part of scientific excavations.
- Looted artifacts that are highly prized by individuals – visitors to the area, tourists, contractors etc…
- Collected objects – on a mantelpiece, in a museum exhibit, or in the classroom as an educational tool.
We consider all these lives of equal interest.
Significance of Follow the Pots: The Big Picture and Project Objectives
At its heart, Follow the Pots urges archaeologists to rethink their privileged position of controlling how people value and use the past, to reflect on our relationship to the people and things we study, and to evaluate our own actions and how they may or may not contribute to ongoing colonial attitudes and practices. What this means is that we question the assumed authority we have as archaeologists to make determinations about what people should or should not do with their archaeological heritage resources.
In our research, we track these EBA pots as a vehicle for exploring how different stakeholders value this archaeological resource. We are interested in learning how the inhabitants of the southern Ghor value these archaeological sites and materials, whether they are looters, intermediaries or simply community members uninvolved in the illegal market. We also investigate why people value these pots enough to purchase them through legal or illegal avenues.
In following these pots through legal transactions, especially involving museums, we hope to explore possibilities for ways Jordan and other countries can address the increasing problem of storage and education through museums. All excavated material must be stored (or curated) by sponsoring institutions, whether that means by local or federal government entities, museums, universities, research laboratories or scientific institutes. Part of FTP requires us to track the movement of tomb pottery and other grave goods excavated at these sites in the 1960s. Many of the grave goods from dozens of tombs were offered for purchase in the 1970s to museums, universities, and research institutions in exchange for displaying them to the public. Currently we are ascertaining if these objects are still held by the institutions that purchased them nearly 40 years ago, and if they are still on display as mandated by the legal agreement between each institution and the EDSP.
What we do know is this: BOTH looting and excavation force a rebirth of material culture, launching pots and other grave goods onto new pathways as archaeological objects to be studied, and art, tourist, or religious objects to be purchased by collectors. We know a tremendous amount about how archaeologists value these objects, but we know relatively little about how local community members, looters, intermediaries, antiquities dealers and collectors value them. If we are hoping to stem the tide of looting by working with the local community members to find a way to use their archaeological heritage resources in a different and more sustainable way, then we need to be more empathetic and open to listening and learning from these folks.
Ultimately, we hope to offer a more nuanced and balanced set of answers to the question “Why Looting Is Important?” Historically archaeologists have failed to convince looters, collectors, and other stakeholders that looting is problematic, largely because archaeologists rarely dedicated time to learning about how other people might value archaeological objects. Archaeologists also tend to cast themselves as the “good guys”, with the “bad guys” roles filled by looters, collectors, and intermediaries. In fact, we think that archaeologists are in many ways the same as the collectors, looters, and intermediaries, because we all value these resources and want to use them for specific purposes to achieve goals. In the end, both looters and archaeologists excavate materials from the ground and send them along a path that removes them from their original context to be valued in one way or another.
What is the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain?
The Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain (EDSP) is a team of archaeologists and other scientists who have been investigating life in Early Bronze Age cities on the southeastern Dead Sea Plain 5,000 years ago. The EDSP was formed in the mid-1970s under directors Walter E. Rast (deceased) and R. Thomas Schaub (deceased). They excavated at two urban settlements (Bab adh-Dhra`) and three cemeteries (Fifa, Bab adh-Dhra`, and Khirbat Khanazir) during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The EDSP has been working steadily for three decades to publish the results of their research. For more detailed information on their excavations, please visit the EDSP website.
What is the Landscapes of the Dead (LOD) project?
In cooperation with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities under the umbrella project of Follow the Pots, the Landscapes of the Dead Research Project is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, ‘drones’) to monitor archaeological site looting at the Early Bronze Age site of Fifa in Jordan. Drones, both fixed and rotary wing, are being deployed as part of a 5-year study of the scale and pace of looting at the site. By constructing high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) across multiple years, we can both map the site and identify new looting events from year to year. This change-over-time data, in conjunction with pedestrian surveys and ethnographic interviews, is particularly valuable for identifying looting events in an already heavily disturbed site. Unfortunately, findings from the first three seasons of the project document significant, on-going damage. These early outcomes are currently being used to develop site protection strategies and local community outreach programs to protect the cultural heritage of this landscape.