Taking the Time for Community Archaeology – Samantha Seyler

December 6, 2017

This summer, with funds from the Penn Museum, I participated in the Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Community Development Project in Yucatán, Mexico. This project is a collaborative initiative sponsored by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, the Museum of the Caste War in Tihosuco, and the Tihosuco Ejido (land commune). Although the research area I am interested in lies further south, in the Andes of South America, I wanted to participate in this project because of its explicit dedication to community-based heritage projects that actively engage the needs and desires of the Tihosuco community.

Community-based archaeology is a term describing archaeological projects that engage communities in some aspect of the archaeological process. A quick survey of the literature surrounding community archaeology illustrates considerable debate over what this engagement looks like in practice. In Tihosuco, ‘community-based archaeology’ means that members of the community are involved in every step of the archaeological process. In previous years, members of the Tihosuco Ejido surveyed ejido lands with Penn Anthropology graduate student Tiffany Cain, mapping the archaeological towns, haciendas, and roads within the ejido boundaries. This year, members of the Tihosuco Ejido carried out excavations at the archaeological site of Tela’, a now-abandoned town that historically existed as an auxiliary town to Tihosuco.

As I mentioned previously, community archaeology can look different depending on the intentions of the participating academics and community members. The archaeologists working on this project weren’t interested in employing community members to move earth (a long tradition in archaeology) or in simply informing community members of their findings at the end of the field season (another relatively common practice); the archaeologists on this project were interested in decolonizing the archaeological process by teaching community members how to carry out archaeological excavations themselves.

Church at the archaeological site of Tela’. (Photo by author)

So, what did community archaeology look like at Tela’? Honestly, a lot like a field school. Each week about 20 members of the Tihosuco Ejido participated in the archaeological component of the Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Community Development Project. This group was split into two teams: the cortafuego team and the excavation team. The cortafuego team cut a fire break around the site of Tela’, an important component of the project’s preservation efforts. This team also constructed a palapa as a resting place for visiting community members and tourists.

The palapa under construction at the entrance to the site of Tela’. (Photo by author)

The excavation team, further split into five groups of two, conducted an archaeological investigation of the house compounds and road blocks at the site of Tela’. Each team of two, consisting of one rotating member that changed weekly and one permanent member that continuously worked on the project, operated its own units. This meant community members learned how to stake out units, excavate archaeological features, determine new archaeological levels, draw unit profiles, and take notes, soil colors, and photos for each level. Each Monday, members of the archaeological team toured the excavations, discussed current theories about the units being excavated, and undertook an overview of the basics of archaeological practice.

Team members excavating. (Photo by author)

Mondays, workwise, were usually a wash. By the time teams settled into their units, there was often only an hour or two left in the work day. Work was always a bit slow during the first few days of the week. It took time for incoming community members to get comfortable with the work. Archaeological excavations require a lot of different skill sets that only come with practice.


Team members reviewing excavation notes. (Photo by author)

Noticing changes in soil composition can require experience. Drawing unit profiles always takes longer than you think it will. And of course, there’s the question that haunts every archaeological project in the world: “cerámico o piedra?” (ceramic or rock?). Like I said earlier, the project felt a lot like a field school.

And, unfortunately, sometimes work had to be redone. Sometimes profile drawings were a little too pretty and didn’t accurately portray the types of rocks that the road blocks were made of. Sometimes a staked-out unit measured more like a rhombus than a rectangle. Excavations can be frustrating. No one likes having to redo their work. Redoing work takes up a lot of time.

And time is something I thought about a lot on this project. Giving tours of the units at the beginning of each week took time. Teaching community members about the importance of stratigraphy and context took time. Checking unit drawings and sometimes asking team members to redraw them took time. And for those of you who haven’t worked on an archaeological dig, time is truly a precious (and fleeting) resource on archaeological projects. Archaeologists usually excavate anywhere between 6-10 weeks of the year. While 6-10 weeks seems like a long time to be working, it really isn’t. Every day of work counts. Bad weather often steals a couple of days. A few late starts here and there take away a few hours. And excavations in general progress slower than planned. Every project ends with a stressful last week in which final units are closed and every excavation hole is backfilled.

At first, I struggled with how much time this version of community-based archaeology took up. “Do good work but don’t be slow about it.” These are the words I would use to describe many archaeologists’ excavation methods. While the project at Tela’ was certainly characterized by good work, it was definitely not as fast as it could be if each team was led by a trained archaeologist. At times, I felt frustrated by this. Sometimes I jumped in and started excavating. There were a lot of days when I wanted to just write the notes myself or quickly sketch the level drawing, knowing I could get the work done in half the time it was taking. I secretly wondered if this organizational model was worth the amount of time it took.

Throughout the six weeks of excavation it became abundantly clear that the loss of time was worth it. While during the first week, graduate student Tiffany Cain gave the site tour and discussed archaeological procedures, with each passing week, the permanent members of the excavation team became more confident in describing our work and explaining the excavation process. Team members began asserting theories about the site based on stories they had heard about los abuelos. Community members were actively engaging in the construction of their heritage.

Team members discussing their interpretations of a unit on a site tour. (Photo by author)


After the first few weeks I began to reflect on the reasons I came to work on the project in the first place. I asked myself what my goals as an archaeologist were. If I was truly interested in decolonizing the archaeological process, maybe that meant archaeology was going to be slower. Maybe it meant giving up some of the archaeologist’s precious time.

Samantha Seyler is a graduate student in the Anthropology Program at the University of Pennsylvania.