Interview with Shahina Farid: Insights into Turkish Archaeology


23 February 2021

In December 2020, Shahina Farid stepped down from her six-year term as Honorary Secretary of the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA).

To show our gratitude for her service to the Institute, Shahina was the first to receive honorary life membership at the BIAA. However, her involvement in the BIAA extends further than six years ago; she first worked with the Institute 35 years ago! We asked Shahina to reflect on the highlights of her archaeological career, advice for fellow archaeologists, her contributions and experience at the BIAA and plans for the future!

Shahina Farid, section recording at Çatalhöyük. Foundation trenches for the North Area shelter 2007. Photo: Çatalhöyük Research Project.

What initially inspired you to become an archaeologist and contribute to Turkish archaeology through the BIAA?

Don’t we all have a memory of a teacher who influenced or inspired a passion that we’ve carried into adulthood? My teacher introduced my class to the ancient Egyptians in preparation for a school visit to the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum. It made me wonder how people lived in the past and how things were discovered. That’s as far back as I can trace my interest, but my big sister tells me my fascination with picking things out of the mud started well before school age. I’d pick out bits of glass and pottery from the garden soil as she dug it over! 

The opportunity to dig abroad came at the end of my second year at the University of Liverpool. I had become aware of the BIAA, and Turkey was a place that just sounded fascinating! We’d already learnt about Çatalhöyük, for instance. I wrote to Geoffrey Summers, one of the two Assistant Directors at the time. He came back with a disappointing no to joining any excavations because it was beyond the permit application process – something I know about all too well now.However, he wrote again to ask if I could draw pottery, and that was it! My first year at the BIAA was the summer of 1985 (thank you, Geoff!) I drew countless pottery sherds for months! The Institute is very quiet over the summer when most people are out doing fieldwork. It is, however, a time when many scholars and researchers pass through, and that was how I met and spent time with Alan Hall. He recounted stories about his early years in Turkey, including how he, David French, and James Mellaart reached Çatalhöyük in 1958. Little did I know then how that site would influence my career in archaeology!

I had the opportunity to travel a lot in that first year. I fell in love with the country, the history, the culture, and the people I met were so wonderfully friendly and welcoming. Best of all, I visited Tille excavations. Over just a weekend, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to dig! I’m one of those lucky few who’ve managed to work in a profession they love.

Tille village and general view from the mound. Photo: Tuğrul Çakar/David French, BIAA Photographic Archive.

In the 1980s, you worked at Tille Höyük with the BIAA’s Director of the time, David French. How did he and other people you met through the BIAA inspire you?

My first season at Tille Höyük was in 1986, and I went every season until the last in 1990. I learnt a lot from that project. I met many of the people who’ve influenced me and my career choices over the years. Most of my excavation and recording learning at Tille was under the tutelage of site supervisor Shirley Simpson and Field Director Stuart Blaylock. It wasn’t until I was Field Director at Çatalhöyük that I fully appreciated how much I had learnt and been influenced by Project Director David French. He was strict, with exacting and high standards, but it was his respect for the people and country we were privileged to be working in – by invitation – that resonated with me in later years.

Stepping through nearly 300 years at Çatalhöyük with Mevlut and Ahmet Sivas. Section recording foundation trenches for the South Area shelter, 2002. Photo: Çatalhöyük Research Project.

You worked at Çatalhöyük for nearly twenty years. What were the biggest surprises and challenges you faced during the project?

The biggest surprise was being asked to become Field Director after Roger Matthews. The biggest challenge was to do the job within the theoretical framework that Ian Hodder had pioneered.

I was out of my depth and comfort zone when I joined the project in 1995. It was the most academically run excavation I’d ever been part of; everyone had or was doing a PhD. They discussed archaeology in terms that I didn’t understand, that was theoretical archaeology. I had never engaged with it, and it didn’t interest me. I enjoy the process of excavation, unravelling the stratigraphy and creating a narrative from the soil, using this to hang contextual information and interpret events that happened in the past. It’s a vast 3-dimensional puzzle, but it’s fluid. You have to adapt as new data is brought into play.

Now, years later, I know I am a better archaeologist for all the methods we tried and tested at Çatalhöyük. Not all were successful, and it wasn’t easy. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Ian Hodder was frustrated that his team weren’t doing the theory that he and the project championed. I felt we were doing as much as we could within the parameters of the project-wide expectations; time, resources, experience, workflow, and so much more. I still maintain that theory works on paper but can’t always work in practice.

You have experienced a variety of internationally run excavations. How did excavating at the site of Çatalhöyük compare to other archaeological sites?

I have wonderful memories of all the projects I worked on, each unique in setting, people and friendships. I drew on all of those rich experiences when I joined the Çatalhöyük project in 1995. In particular, my training at the Museum of London, where I learned how to excavate complex urban sequences, was so relevant for dealing with the stratigraphy at Çatalhöyük. I was given a full-time job in 1999, rare in archaeology, especially for a circuit digger, which meant I was completely immersed in it at all levels. The archaeology was obviously a draw, and I got to work with brilliant people. The project, however, was unique in its multi-disciplinary approach, drawing on expertise from all over the world. I loved that job; sometimes, I would stop and think: I have the best archaeological job in the world!

On site at Çatalhöyük, South Area excavations in 2009. Photo: Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.

What has been your most memorable archaeological experience?

On a day off from Tille Höyük, we visited Nevalı Çori. We arrived at the site in the late afternoon. It was the end of the workday, and as we made our way through the valley to the site, the skies were colours of pinks and oranges and gold. It was quiet, that still silence that settles just before dusk when even the birds chirp in a hush. Then, we saw the site, that extraordinary monolith pillar set central to a stone-walled structure with its simple linear markings of a stylised human form. The stillness, the hushed chatter of birds, and our silence as we looked up in awe – then I heard music, a tinkling flute-like tune in the air – I believed I was experiencing something spiritual. Before I realised that the wind was whistling through the metal photographic tower that I was standing beside! The moment was memorable though, and that trip was long before the wondrous discovery of Göbekli Tepe, which is still on my bucket list to visit.

What would you say is crucial for working on an archaeological excavation?

A happy team! It’s the team that makes or breaks a good excavation season, and a well-fed team is a happy team. I’ve often heard horror stories on excavations where the food budget is slashed when funding is tight! Thankfully, I’ve never had to experience that. Communication is also key. It’s not always possible to keep everyone informed of everything, but open communication lines avoid misunderstandings. Recognition of everyone’s place and worth on the project is important too, from the researchers, house staff, students, professionals, drivers, cooks. Each and every one is essential in their contribution to the smooth running of an excavation. I’m not going to pretend that egos and hierarchy don’t get in the way. Still, in the end, everyone on an excavation has a united goal and are striving to achieve the same results to the best of their ability, which includes sharing data and using a unified recording system.

Data crunching with Dave Mackie. Çatalhöyük 2011. Photo: Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and how would you advise aspiring archaeologists?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Own up if you don’t know how to do something and don’t try to hide or cover mistakes. If you’ve dug something out of sequence, it doesn’t matter; correct the records. Otherwise, it will skew the results, and wrong interpretations will be made. Record any doubts so that data can be revisited if anomalies appear at the reporting stage. Remember that each site is a new learning experience because of diverse archaeology, soil composition, deposition sequences, and different questions to address. 

After your six-year term as honorary secretary, what did receiving the first honorary life membership at the BIAA mean to you?

It was a complete surprise and a much appreciated vote of thanks. Especially because I have often felt that the work and time given by Honorary Trustees and officers gets overlooked or taken for granted. For me, receiving this life membership is an acknowledgement of my participation at the BIAA, but it also makes me feel that I’m still valued and connected. On a blunt note, it removes that difficult decision about paying my annual subscription because it is not a straight forward choice for me, and I think others may feel the same. Membership cost is an issue many membership societies must address, as concerns of diversity and inclusivity are being confronted. People’s income bracket and job security are critical in the debate around broadening membership to reflect all of society today.

BIAA event at the British Academy 2014. Photo credit: BIAA.

What do you feel has been your most significant achievement as both Honorary Secretary and Chair of the Research Committee whilst at the BIAA?

I feel a particular sense of achievement to have introduced gender into the Articles of Association. First written in 1948, and whilst there were women on the Board of Trustees, things were very different. It was the norm that official documents were written using the male pronoun. When I read the Articles, I could not believe that in 2014 it had not been corrected. It was easily overlooked by successive male-dominated trusteeships and surprisingly not straightforward to change – I had been warned. I dug my heels in though, because it mattered. It matters to recognise inclusivity, and it matters to give the right impression by not continuing with old practices that don’t fit into contemporary thinking. I would say I am most proud of implementing gender-neutral language.

This exercise then led to substantive work updating the entire Articles, which still need a major facelift to reflect a more modern organisation. I’d like to see this done within the next year or so. I have learned that it is good practice to review governance documents regularly. These legal documents outline an organisation’s purpose and goals, how decisions are made and by whom to protect Trustees from making wrong decisions or mistakes. Times and values change, and so governance documents too need to be reviewed and realigned. So, I consider most of my achievements are governance related. I achieved none of this on my own though, it was a team effort, drawing on everyone’s areas of expertise.

What do you intend to do with your spare time now that your term as Honorary Secretary has ended?

I’ve lots of ideas, but I’m not sure what I’ll manage. My priority is the Çatalhöyük radiocarbon dating sequence, which I’m still working on with some colleagues. I hope to write a book from a ‘doing Çatalhöyük’ perspective. I’ve thought of calling it ‘The Bear’s Bottom’, which we excavated in 2007 – well, what could come after Michael Balter’s The Goddess and the Bull, and Ian Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale?! Although it has been suggested that ‘Tell Tales’ would be more appropriate.

Mellaart had excavated wall reliefs, which he interpreted as Mother Goddesses (left), but we had found a clay stamp of a splayed figure which still had its head and some of its feet. This stamp (11652.X1) was undoubtedly an animal and probably a bear (middle). In 2007, a relief excavated in the corner of a room in the North Area (right) looks very like a bear’s bottom. Photos: James Mellaart  & Çatalhöyük Research Project.

I will, however, miss working with BIAA colleagues, but I’ll not be far. Once we’re allowed, I’ll be attending evening lectures and events again.

On site at Çatalhöyük, South Area excavations in 2009. Photo: Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project.

Shahina Farid is a British Archaeologist and deeply respected in Turkish archaeology as one of the best field archaeologists. She worked at Çatalhöyük as Field Director for almost twenty years. Other Turkish sites Shahina excavated at include Tille Höyük and Amorium, plus archaeological sites in Britain and the United Arab Emirates. Currently, she works for Historic England as a scientific dating coordinator. Even though Shahina has now stepped down as Honorary Secretary, the BIAA looks forward to our continued relationship with her as an honorary life member.