Unsilencing the Archives

Archives are always a treasure trove, but they often remain a closed Pandora’s box for interested parties.

Due to COVID-19, the Badè Museum gallery in Berkeley, California, is closed until further notice.

The virtual exhibition Unsilencing the Archives: The Laborers of the Tell en-Nasbeh Excavations (1926–1935) has been recently launched online by the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology. Developed with support from the Palestine Exploration Fund, it portrays the role of local labourers and Egyptian foremen in excavating Tell en-Nasbeh, an archaeological site about 8 miles northwest of Jerusalem in what was British Mandate Palestine.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, archaeologists working in the Middle East often employed large teams of local workers to perform the manual labour of digging and hauling earth. Although most excavation projects employed no more than a few dozen workers at a time, some boasted labour forces of several hundred. In Mandate-era Palestine (1917-1948) local men, women, and children were hired seasonally to work for an archaeological dig, typically by way of a foreman or mukhtar—a prominent member of one of the nearby communities.

The digs often worked with minimal supervision compared to modern standards and received little to no explanation of key contextual questions about the site’s history or project goals, keeping them largely in the dark regarding the aims and finds of the dig. Financial incentives — bakshish payments — to produce valuable finds quickly compounded these issues and encourage quick, if not careful, excavation.

Local labourers employed at archaeological digs around the Middle East appear only anecdotally in field documentation, dig reports, and publications. Large excavation projects — almost exclusively directed by European or American scholars — have historically hired dozens and hundreds of local men, women, and even children to perform the “unskilled labour” of digging, hauling, and dumping the excavated material. Many seasoned labourers and their foremen developed professional excavation skills and acquired formidable knowledge, yet their important role in the region’s archaeology has largely gone unnoticed.

To fill in this narrative, the present exhibit showcases unpublished archival documents, photographs, and historical film footage that illustrate the untold stories. The visual material is arranged in five parts with extensive commentary. We learn about individual labourers, as well as their (low) salaries, daily routines, and dig tasks. Other documents illustrate hiring practices and negotiations between foreign archaeologists and local landholders.

Free, web-based, and open-access, this rich material is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Related content, including public programming, is available on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

This exhibition was curated, written, and designed by Dr. Melissa Cradic (Curator, Badè Museum) and Samuel Pfister (Collections Manager, Badè Museum) with funding from the Annual Grant of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

The exhibition is held in conjunction with a 2021-2022 public lecture series available on the  Badè Museum’s YouTube channel . The series is co-sponsored by the Badè Museum, Palestine Exploration Fund, and Archaeology Research Facility at University of California, Berkeley.

In late 2020, the Badè Museum launched another virtual exhibit centred around the excavations at Tell en-Nasbeh. Titled Daily Life in an Ancient Judean Town, this project is built around artifacts excavated by William F. Badè from Tell en-Nasbeh and offers a glimpse into the lifestyles and culture of ancient Judeans during the first millennium B.C.E.

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