Practical Archaeology Fieldschool Tips – Start Today!

You’re going to a field school? I’m excited for you! You’re reading your field school manual, you bought your trowel, you have your plane/train/bus tickets, and you’re ready to go!

Terry Brock has some good tips on how to get an A in field school.

But I, I will teach you to be a ninja. Or a ninja-archaeologist. Archaeoningologist? This is how you can start improving your field technique BEFORE you go to the field.

1) Teach yourself to write architect style–in block capital letters. I know you are a unique individual, and your flowery script reflects the depth of your soul. I don’t care. Write like an architect. Some archaeologists never learn and they are cursed by subsequent researchers, museum handlers, and data-entry folks. Your handwriting sucks. Fix it. Now. BLOCK CAPS.

2) As a corollary to rule one, write your numbers correctly. Look up there, at the photo. I actually had a hard time writing them incorrectly, but your numbers should not have personality. They should be clear at 50 paces. This is more important on international excavations where you have people writing wonky ones and sevens.

3) Where is north? From where you are sitting, point north. Can’t do it? Learn. At several points of the day, figure out where north is. You should always know where north is, no matter where you are. Fancy phones have compass programs now and it shouldn’t be hard. Level up–find out what the declination is for where you are and where you will be digging. I would probably faint if a student came to field school and knew what the declination was for the area.

4) Practice distances and measurements. A good archaeologist should be able to put two fingers out in front of them and accurately portray 10cm, 20cm, 30cm. Start estimating how big things are in centimeters, then whip out a ruler and check. None of this inches business–I don’t care what they do at Monticello. We estimate a lot in archaeology–know if a rock is 2-5cm or 5-10cm or 10-15cm.

5) Know your pace. If you can, lay out a 10-20 meter tape on the ground. Walk it. See how many steps of yours is 10 meters. I come in at about 12 at a regular gait. If you know this, you can walk around sites and have a rough idea of how close things are together. It’s actually best to practice this along 50 meter stretches so you don’t have as much stopping and starting.

6) Know how to tie a few basic knots. Square knots are useful, as are slip knots. It’s amazing how few people know how to tie a few useful knots. (Including myself–I need to get better at this)

7) Take a shower with very little water. Fill up a bucket, then get a smaller cup, and there you go. You should be able to get really clean with 2L of water, and pretty clean with 1L of water.

8) Get sporty! Go online, check out a few walks or hikes in your area and go outside! You don’t have to run marathons, but you should also not rely on field school to get you into shape, because it won’t–unless you are hiking in and out and shoveling all day, then kudos! But the people who have the most fun on digs are the folks who like to be outside. Get a book on whatever birds or rocks are local to your dig site.

9) Get over your food issues. I understand that some people will die if they so much as smell a peanut, but try to eat everything that is offered to you. Vegans and vegetarians, don’t make your habit other peoples’ problem, and don’t be rude to local people who don’t understand why you don’t want their chicken. And for crying out loud don’t exist on protein bars–you are missing out if you are not eating the local food, whether you are working in Mississippi or Tibet. Be an loca-omni-vore and chalk it up to experience.

10) Read my old, yet still relevant tips on how to dress in the field.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

6 thoughts on “Practical Archaeology Fieldschool Tips – Start Today!”

  1. Write dates as 01 May 2012, not 1/5/12 or 5/1/12 (or variations thereof). The latter make it impossible to decipher in future years without additional information.

  2. Overall great advice. Except for #9 when it comes to dietary choices telling a committed vegan or someone with strong religious views about their food to get over it, is extremely narrow minded and insensitive. Overall doing fieldwork should be an enjoyable experience, the anxiety someone might feel over being told to get over their strong (often moral) convictions about eating certain foods would be enough to ruin an otherwise fabulous experience.
    My advice is if you have any such requirements is to investigate what the locals eat, know what you can and cannot eat and how to explain this to people (preferably in their language), and make sure to bring multivitamins if you expect you’re diet will be lacking in something essential.

  3. @griffonaus – I missed that one, thank you! It is really difficult to come back to the states where the date is backwards again.

    @Jacq – I have been a vegetarian for a decade. There are times when this has been impractical or I have been sitting around a table at a host’s house with nothing but a goat on top of rice in front of me and I will eat the goat. (Making me not a vegetarian! How shameful!) After a long time in the field (and a few hard lessons), I think being a strict vegan or vegetarian in these contexts is extremely narrow minded and insensitive. Why not question your moral and religious convictions?

  4. I think we largely agree, there have been times where I’ve had to renegotiate my own vegetarian (and now vegan) diet in the field in order not be offensive and also not to go hungry in the field, which I don’t have a problem with and would do again. It’s part of the deal when you work in places where self imposed dietary restrictions like ours are considered extremely odd and it is often rude to refuse food when when it’s offered especially when the locals don’t have much to offer. But I don’t think anyone should be telling fieldschool students that they will have to get over their convictions the moment they enter the field, it’s something they need to make sure the organisers are aware of (generally alternatives can be arranged without much fuss) and they also need to be prepared to make exceptions in certain contexts.

  5. I am with Colleen on this. it may sound harsh, but… as we have all obviously done, when presented by local foods then we have two choices… eat or offend. The third option of asking if there is a suitable vegetarian option does exist… but again it will depend where you are. In many countries. meat is a welcome addition to the diet and often a guests privilege. So I would concur . but perhaps in more restrained Brit Speak. Jaq in a way says it above. From the start, the person should say if they can’t eat this or that for whatever reason…so there is no shock in the field. As the last thing I would want to do when turning up 300 miles from the nearest town, is to discover that the only food to eat is Yak fat and rice… and I am a committed vegetarian unwilling to compromise my convictions.
    So the message is… in many cases, this is not Kansas any more. and te reason you are there is in part to involve yourself in local culture. not separate yourself.

  6. Just because I can’t eat fresh fruit and veggies all the time while on the job is no reason to go to the total opposite of the health spectrum and eat like shit, feel like shit, gain weight, be sick all the time, and in my case, make my pcos much worse and become disabled once a month, and nearly disabled the rest of the time. Then I wont have a job. I don’t know what you mean by “Don’t make your habit other peoples problem.” What? How? Maybe people should stop getting so upset over others eating healthy and then there wont be a problem. Focus on your own plate. I know noodles, rice, beans, nuts, etc, and cliff bars isn’t an ideal diet, but it’s still better than animal products. It stores better than animal products too, especially if there’s no refrigeration, and it’s cheaper. I’m not causing anyone problems by eating as healthy as I can. If you can eat unhealthy with no consequences then good for you, but not everyone can. And when it comes to buying our own food at restaurants and stores, no way in hell can anyone shame me into paying for animals to be tortured just because they want me to follow their diet for some strange reason. My money, my choice. You do you and I’ll do me.

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