While we explored Alalakh yesterday, Murat (the project’s senior field supervisor) explained some of the ramifications of excavating archaeological sites in areas already inhabited by locals. Tell Atchana (formerly Alalakh) is a living mound, meaning that it is still inhabited by a small farming community. Due to the importance of the palatial site, the Turkish government has forbidden further construction on the mound. However, the locals need the space for homes, storage, facilities, etc. The punishment for construction at this archaeological site is one year in prison, but many families willingly construct houses anyway so that they will have a place to live once they get out of prison.
Ideally, the government would provide the resources to allow the villagers to relocate or build elsewhere, but as of now neither side of the conflict is benefiting from construction restrictions. The archaeologists are hindered by continuing construction on an incredibly significant site, reducing the amount of area open for excavation, and local people are being thrown in prison for trying to better their lives.
This situation highlights the incredible difficulties inherent in this discipline. Too often, archaeology is seen as a glamorous, Indiana Jones-esque endeavor, full of exciting discoveries. In reality, extensive social and political conflict hinder the study and preservation of the past. Cooperation with local communities is essential for any successful archaeological project, but this cooperation can become difficult when scholarly goals conflict with the realities of local life.
What matters more, the past or the present? Historical knowledge or the preservation of modern life? These questions are impossible to answer, and yet they must be considered by anyone hoping to have a future in archaeology. We must never forget that every action has a reaction. Our actions always impact others, sometimes in very negative ways, and most of the time there is no easy resolution.