For decolonial archaeology, being “of the soil” shifts with the wind.
“Inevitably, as archaeologists, we are always eating or consuming dirt.”
“Muslims are not supposed to eat the dirt; it is like being a cannibal.”
“But you eat khaak-e-shifa …?
“Only a pinch – you cannot eat the soil because we are of the soil.”
(Conversation between the author and a pathologist, Sharjah, UAE)
The taste of earth is umami.
It is, in fact, the definition of earthiness; each soil sample carries with it its own distinct landscape of flavor. I have spent much of my life trying to understand landscapes of earth and their distinct tastes. There is something deeply intimate about savoring a landscape, tasting the soil. What makes that act cannibalistic is also the same that makes it so very sensual. It is about recognizing through my senses both being and belonging. My tongue becomes a landscape through which I am held accountable for my assumptions. I expect the sand from the coast to be salty, and yet it is dry and granular.
The desert is different. The desert’s hot sand stings the tongue in a way that reveals nothing about flavor; it is only heat that I encounter. The sand does not only burn my tongue, but also my eyes and skin. In its heat it viscerally resists any formulation of empirical observation. Growing accustomed to that heat entails growing accustomed to the taste of heat. There are few archaeologists I know who work in the desert who are unaccustomed to the taste of heat. In recognizing the grains of landscape as resistant, our approach to them becomes nuanced. We reconsider our intimacy with the earth, and even if we do not speak of our ingestion, we all then know that it is not the dirt that is dirty.
What better way to rearrange colonial orderings of the ancient world than to employ a methodology that rides the line between disgust and desire. An impulse to decolonize archaeological methodology is one that recognizes that the invisible hierarchies of knowledge construction are considered normative empiricism. And that ability for science to make inequity invisible is what is really dirty, disgusting and epistemically unjust
It is on such a fine line that this essay rests as it attempts to understand deeply and intimately a landscape of fluidity and urbanity. The process of knowing this landscape is necessarily slow because when I am close to the earth time collapses, pushing me away. I find myself trying to articulate the third millennium BCE eastern coastline of the UAE, and yet, without time, the landscape itself slips in and out of focus, resisting my archaeological gaze and silencing my study. I am forced out of teleological formulations of how the archaeological survey is constructed. I find myself balancing on a sliver, a stance that allows me to employ an archaeological understanding of a concern with the contemporary as being singularly of this time yet resolutely employing a critical distance.
Early in my affair with the UAE, and perhaps one of my favorite such moments was at the site of Tell Abraq – an archaeological site in the emirate of Sharjah. The earth was excavated by men wearing shalwar kameez, speaking in various languages from South Asia. As I walked through the site with my driver, they stopped their work to watch a woman wearing a shalwar kameez walk onto the site and discuss its antiquity with the project and field directors. I could hear them talking amongst themselves about who I was. My driver, who was born on this land when it was still a part of the Trucial States, but holds a passport of Bangladesh, began to explain to them what I was doing, “She’s looking for people like us from a long time ago,” and in the ensuing conversation, my research agenda of locating Harappan sites in the UAE unfolded in the vernacular. Later, I asked the driver about the conversation and he said they all thought it would be amazing if you (an archaeologist) can show the world that people from South Asia have been here for 5000 years. I pointed out that culture changes and we cannot make a direct link between what may have happened 5000 years ago and what is happening today. “Yes,” he said with a barely perceptible smile, “but it would be great to know that we may have built that culture change on this land.” I was silenced by this sliver of a smile and continued to wipe the sand off my brow. Our faces were covered in the earth and sweat; it had been a particularly windy day at the site.
There is something unique to the umami of the earth; it leaves one’s tongue heavy and reluctant. I suspect that affect is partially to blame for the attribution of cannibalism, which is probably also heavily reluctant. It is also probably why I feel uniquely violent every time I take a big swing at the earth with a pick or dig too deep with a shovel. I thought my preference for slow surveys was just old age, but perhaps it is simply because I have eaten too much dirt and am beginning to feel its pain. I believe there is some wisdom in this empathy, but I am not experienced enough yet to recognize it.
Driving along the east coast near Kalba, I recently stopped near some inland fishing areas and spoke to some men who looked like they were fishing. We spoke in vague Hindustani about the coastline and my desire to learn the landscape. As we talked, I lifted some earth from around us to get some sense of its consistency between my fingers, curious about the grain size. The men laughed after a bit and told me it would be difficult to get a sense of this miti (soil/earth/sand) because it was mixed from the construction sites, and in many cases the beaches were being developed with earth coming in from other places. The coastline itself is constructed, as all landscapes inevitably are, but with sand from many different contexts. In its very essence, in the materiality of its grains, this was a cosmopolitan coastline. My last question to them had to do with the local fishing families, only to be met with the answer that most of the fishing families no longer lived in the area. I was left with a question hanging in the air of who they were, but could not find the space to ask as it suddenly felt incredibly personal, contingent and unknowable. There was a silence that filled the spaces between us and I turned to the earth once again looking for answers.
A few weeks later I was in the office of a geoarchaeologist in Hoboken, New Jersey and we talked about the shifting coastline of the UAE. In order to know the third millennium BCE landscape, we would have to conduct some geocores from the coast working our way inland. How else could we capture some understanding of a coastline that was constantly shifting. I recognized the colonial impulse in myself which wanted to know something that was proving to be shifty. I am still too young and curious, willing to be epistemically lazy about the violence I might be reinstating by conducting such a survey: it is just a few holes every few kilometers.
In speaking to fishermen, they often gesture towards the sea and say they are from everywhere, making one feel as if their ties vaguely touch land. There is an admirable comfort they have in the fluidity of belonging to a scape that constantly shifts in ebbs and flows. Perhaps one of my deep assumptions is that for those of us on land, our belonging is more certain and can be excavated. We are of the soil and as such there is some ontological certainty of our belonging to a soil. It is almost as if our bloodlines are made of our soil lineages. What if the earth of this coastline is cosmopolitan in its makeup, what if each grain of sand hails from a different place, a different history, a different language?
Early in my obsession in geomorphology, I spent much time thinking about Aeolian processes and specifically, loess – how slowly over time, particularly in desert environments, dunes moved with the help of the wind. I watched wind patterns as they carefully picked up silt grain after grain and redeposited it to a new location. The loving nature of the wind moves me, and I know of its capricious tendencies, and yet it is still not as unreliable as human nature. I cannot help but think of Aeolus, the Keeper of the Winds, after whom these processes are named. His present to Odysseus was a tightly sealed bag of captured winds to find his way back home to Ithaca. The sealed inaccessibility of them made them visually valuable, which they were because they could have aided in finding the way home by sea. Human nature assumed that the riches in the bag must have been material. Opening the bag to experience wind, the subsequent hurricane that emerged and the inability to make it home, entangle nature within itself whether it is located in the landscapes of humans, winds or seas. Somewhere in my own history of learning how to get to know a landscape that very entanglement of the forms of nature exists.
I find myself allowed and able to taste sand, but not eat it. I find that we are of the soil but as it shifts our own sense of belonging is contingent. And I find that in decolonizing my scientific approach, it is not only the bodies on a landscape and their political essentialisms that I must take into account, but also how this landscape resists my documentation. Every moment that I feel I am closer to knowing this landscape and it knowing me, it shifts and moves. To be fair, it may feel the same about me because I change with every new taste of earth.