Community archaeology in practice: an interview with Tiffany Cain

Published: January 16, 2019


By Carlos Price-Sanchez, International Education and Development, Penn Graduate School of Education

This week, I sat down with Tiffany Cain, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She has just come back from her 6th season of archaeological study in Tihosuco, Quintana Roo, Mexico. There, her study is one of many sub-projects of the “Tihosuco Heritage Preservation and Community Development Project,” all related to the history and heritage of Tihosuco. Many of these projects focus on the Caste War of Yucatan, a highly successful indigenous rebellion fought from 1847 to about 1901. Conducting their work in this region, the Project hopes to address the social inequity persistent in the aftermath of the Caste War through community-organized efforts regarding cultural empowerment and the bolstering of the local economy.

“No digging? No sweat!”

As I talk with Tiffany, she begins by recounting how her first years in Tihosuco were spent conducting an archaeological survey of the land of the Ejido (a federally-recognized tract of land granted for communal farming and local use). She tells me that when she first arrived over 6 years ago the local authority made it abundantly clear that excavation would not be happening. This isn’t an unusual response. This measured distrust was grounded in Tihosuco’s historically fraught relationship with government agencies like the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e História (INAH). The problem is that INAH has the rights to any historic property and the artifacts excavated within that land. As a result, if something is found that is of interest to the government they can claim ownership and extract it from the community. However, as Tiffany tells me, “there is much archaeological practice that is beneficial [to a local community] that doesn’t have to look like excavation.”


“Hey, Let’s go here!”

At the request of the people of Tihosuco, the first two years were preoccupied with the mapping of a town abandoned during the Caste War known as Tela’ (before the war) or Lal Kaj (now). This town had been depopulated for over a hundred years in a region of abundant and unrelentingly fast-growing jungle. As a result, the town had been quickly and beautifully consumed by its natural surroundings.

As the project continued, relationships strengthened between non-local members of the Tihosuco Project, like Tiffany, and members of the Tihosuco community. Eventually, opinions shifted and in 2015 the Ejido’s representatives suggested the project expand their mapping program across the Ejido – marking both road and water systems, as well as other historic sites. Slowly, a sprawling map was developing – the result of an ethnographic snowballing of participatory knowledge gathering. Seeing the positive effects of their efforts, more and more Tihosuco locals approached the Project to contribute potential sites and join the project in directing them there.

“Wait, aren’t you an archaeologist? Why aren’t we digging?”

The project experienced its next expansion two years ago when Tihosuco underwent a change in administration. This change would usher into power candidates who had worked with the project and were sympathetic to its goals. So now, having spent a good four years working together across the Ejido, Tihosuco’s local project members requested that plans be made to break ground. So, in 2017 the digging began! What developed was a regular 12-week season which saw the continuity of survey work as well as the beginning of exploratory excavations within Lal Kaj.

“The project runs a lot like a field school”

I ask Tiffany how she balances such short seasons with limited staff, while still prioritizing community participation and learning rather than exclusively chasing some archaeological question. She says that the project runs very much like a field school, and notes that “[community members] are not my workmen, [they] are the Tihosuco team.”

However, it is important to note that funding is still a driver. When people write about community archaeology many are hesitant to talk about the continued centrality of funding. Many communities do want to work with archaeologists because you are offering monetary resources but, as Tiffany states, “that’s not where it stops.” The reality is that many people in the Ejido are subsistence farmers or day laborers in the Riveria Maya – nobody has the luxury of taking a day away from providing food for their families. Paying the community doesn’t make it community archaeology. So, while the opportunity to make money is a necessary seed, the growth of this sort of project ultimately comes from collaborating on joint research questions, joint outcomes, joint interpretive lenses. People bring their own localized expertise to the table, while learning other skills that they can take to jobs in other spaces. Central to the tenets of community archaeology and Tiffany’s practice is, as she puts it, not only collaborating on joint ventures but “consistently asking permission in substantive ways.” Dialogue and permissions ensure the investment of shared knowledge and resources in the community, rather than their extraction from it.

Tihosuco Community Heritage Project

“There’s no reason that such ventures can’t be mutually beneficial”

In my final question to Tiffany, I ask her about how she navigates the two worlds in which she conducts her research: the responsibilities she has toward the community of Tihosuco and the responsibilities she has toward her doctoral program and dissertation committee. How can her efforts in Tihosuco be both beneficial to the people of the Ejido and present substantive analysis of her own research questions?

What she tells me is that the development of her thesis has been done largely in the reverse of how archaeologists have historically formulated their projects. She says that when she came to the Ejido, she had very few pre-determined research goals. While many anthropologists arrive onsite with specific research goals in mind, Tiffany, has been able to develop her intellectual foci from the materials and research questions that she collaborated on with the members of the Tihosuco team.

The misconception is that community-based archaeologies are somehow less rigorous because the archaeologist does not determine their research questions in the conventional fashion. Tiffany tells me this idea is “a complete fallacy.”  She rooted her work in her commitment to reciprocity in the research process, allowing their mutual laboring to generate a more robust research agenda that can be sustained into the future.

Ultimately, she aims to show how the collaborative mapping of the Ejido has highlighted the forms of structural violence that set the conditions for the Caste War and the ways that the war’s violence restructured the landscape. She states, “I would never have been able to achieve such an intellectual question if I had not collaborated with Tihosuqueños… now we both have something: a study I can use [toward the dissertation], and a project that benefits the community.”

With this project, Tiffany hopes to show that researchers “can have a very rigorous intellectual agenda and still be doing research that is oriented towards the social and economic concerns of the community.” Ultimately, the work of Tiffany Cain, the community in Tihosuco, and the other Penn-affiliated members of the Project team will continue pushing the bounds of community-based archaeology ought to look like and can achieve.