Keeping archaeological field work safe

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All too often, archaeologists working in the field face problems with sexual harassment and physical violence. In 2014, Beth Alpert Nakhai, Associate Professor in the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona, decided to do something about it. To gain a clearer picture of the extent and the nature of the problem, she set up a survey for archaeologists working the Middle East and North Africa. Nakhai kindly agreed to share her results with us, and invites everyone to contribute with both solutions and experiences.

Keeping archaeological field work safe from sexual harassment and physical violence

By Beth Alpert Nakhai

In 2014, I began investigating the problem of safety in the field for female archaeologists working in the Middle East and North Africa. Although I have been working in Near Eastern archaeology since the mid-1980s, I had never considered this problem in a comprehensive way until I read the work done by four anthropologists, Kathryn B. H. Clancy, Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford and Katie Hinde. At the 2013 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Clancy stated that, “undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty report sexual harassment and assault not only by their peers, but by their bosses and mentors in the field.” She blogged about their work in Scientific American and the four collaborators published their research in PLOS/ONE.

Knowing that in our field, as well, things are less than ideal, I committed myself to doing what I could to make it possible for people to engage in fieldwork without fear of intimidation, harassment and violence based on gender, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity.  In 2014, I was still a trustee of the American Schools of Oriental Research – and I continue to chair its Initiative on the Status of Women.  These positions have given me a platform from which to work – and fortunately, the ASOR community has been fully supportive.

I began my work by quantifying the extent of the problem through a survey I developed entitled Survey on Field Safety: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin.  I disseminated the survey through Qualtrics in 2014 and 2015.  I received several hundred responses that provide meaningful insights into dig culture and help determine what needs to be done to make excavations safer.

A quick overview of the survey results indicates the following:

  • Demographics: countries of residence (24); age between 22-39 (55%); gender female (63%), male (37%), transgendered (0%); sexual orientation heterosexual (90%), lesbian or gay (4%), bisexual (4%), other (2%).
  • Highest degree obtained: high school (5%), bachelor (14%), master (31%), doctorate (47%).
  • Professional or academic positions, and fieldwork interests: more than 30 different positions in archaeology; nearly 50 areas of archaeological specialization or interest.
  • Fieldwork locations: countries of fieldwork (22); fieldwork in urban settings (19%), rural or isolated settings (81%).
  • Experience: almost half of respondents worked 4+ years on the project they reported about.
  • Responsibilities: director or co/director (19%), volunteer or paid digger (15%), many other positions also indicated.
  • Gender of director(s), staff, volunteers, paid workers: no female director (40%), no male director (21%); staffs split relatively evenly by gender; more female than male dig volunteers; paid workers almost all men.
  • Field safety – codes of conduct: dig has a relatively well-valued code of conduct (almost half); code of conduct includes information on sexual violations (just over half of codes); mandates reporting for violations (nearly half of codes); mandates follow-up and repercussions for reported violations (less than half of codes); if repercussions mandated, they meet excavation, university and other legal codes (two-thirds of codes).
  • Field safety – health care and counseling: appropriate health care available (three-quarters); ombudspeople available (17%).
  • Problems with excavation culture: accepting of sexual violations (20% of digs); drug and/or alcohol abuse (58%); physical assault or violence (22%; many perpetrators were individuals in positions of authority); racial and/or religious harassment (29%); theft (25%); vandalism (14%); other violations (22%).  Some respondents: felt compelled to hide aspects of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity; witnessed or experienced comments of a harassing and/or intimidating nature, including inappropriate and/or hateful sexual remarks, and negative comments about physical attributes, dress, gender, sexual orientation, and gender presentation.
  • Violations of professional integrity: expropriation of professional contributions (25% of digs); discrimination in fieldwork and post-fieldwork assignments and opportunities based on gender, sexual orientation and/or gender identity (nearly one-third); excavation standards, expectations and rewards inequitably managed (just under half).
  • Reporting violations of professional integrity (during or post-excavation): many respondents indicated ambivalence about reporting and noted the lack of any positive reaction to their reports, when they did report.
Did you witness and/or experience touching, sexual advances, assault, and/or rape?
Did you witness and/or experience touching, sexual advances, assault, and/or rape?

In addition to documenting and quantifying experiences, I am working to (1) determine those factors that contribute to safe and unsafe fieldwork environments; (2) determine best practices and the means by which to implement them; (3) develop standards, policies, protocols, and trainings designed to educate and inform all participants on archaeological excavations about ethics and laws in the field and on research projects; and, (4) under the auspices of ASOR, provide access to relevant documents for excavation leaders, staff, volunteers, and employees.

Final points: the laws of your home country may not apply to projects abroad, even if those projects are affiliated with your university or institution.  Be informed about: (1) the laws that prevail in the country in which you work, which may be quite different from the laws of your home country; (2) the chain of command for your field project, including the person who is responsible for resolving informal complaints and for handling formal complaints; (3) the social customs of the country in which you work, which may be quite different from social customs in your home country; and, (4) the ways in which your home institution can – and cannot – help you once you travel abroad.

I am eager to learn about your experiences and to find out about mechanisms that you, your excavations and research projects, and your home institutions, have developed to deal with these kinds of problems. Please contact me. For further discussion, join the Facebook page for the ASOR Initiative on the Status of Women.

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