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.

Archaeological Field Schools and Management Styles

One of the things that you don’t really learn much about in graduate school is how to manage the nuts and bolts of an excavation.  We pick a lot up from experiences at different sites, but there is little explicit direction regarding managing teams of specialists, students and workmen.  The structure of the site hierarchy is something that is partially extemporaneous or assumed as part of a legacy from previous excavations, much like excavation style.  While this sort of trade knowledge can be good, it also results in the perpetuation of archaic recording systems and strange on-site bureaucracies that quickly grow unmanageable and static, unable to change long after they have become obsolete or shown to be actively destructive to the archaeological process.

This lack of explicit direction is probably a result of an increased emphasis on the cultivation specialisms in graduate school, versus an excavation director-style generalist. Also, most sites that are excavated in the United States simply do not require the large scale planning and human resources that tell sites in the Middle East need for proper excavation and study. I’m not even sure that other graduate students would take a class in site management and personnel issues–Berkeley is considered fairly radical just to have a pedagogy class where we learn how to, y’know, teach!

The progress of excavation and happiness, education, and involvement of the participants of the excavation is an interesting problem in itself, and I have seen the results of this equation play out in many different scenarios.  For reasons laid out fairly ably in Berggren and Hodder’s Social Practice, Method, and Some Problems of Field Archaeology, having paid, professional excavators on sites (especially those that feature complex stratigraphy) enables the removal of many layers of bureaucracy wherein inexperienced graduate students who are training unexperienced undergraduates have to be watched by marginally more experienced field directors. This is often the justification for digging with baulks, that even if these inexperienced excavators destroy the archaeology, it can be reinterpreted by the excavation director at a later date.  This is wholly irresponsible, but can only really be alleviated by the very thing we do not have in archaeology–more money.  One could argue that these sites should not be excavated at all if there is not enough money to produce quality data, but the willingness to capture secure data for all the specialist information that we can therefore produce seems to be marginalized or misunderstood by many projects.  The craft of archaeology suffers through the deemphasizing of excavation methodology and our data suffers as well.  I cannot count how many times I’ve seen really interesting hypotheses presented in talks that were subsequently shattered when the details of their data collection were revealed, usually unwittingly by the presenter.

How does one balance correct excavation techniques, the education of undergraduates, and the demands of interested parties who are funding the project?  It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a while now, and that I will probably continue to ask throughout my career as an archaeologist.

I’ll probably attempt to pull these posts together into something a bit formalized later, but I’m happy having it in blog form at the moment. Any comments or suggestions would be welcome!

Next up: Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field

Juliette Street, 2002


Trav mentioned in the comments for the last post that the excavation was done during a field school. While I was looking for something else, I happened upon the photos I took during my first field school in Dallas. That’s when I actually started my first blog (“Things to do in Dallas When You’re Dead,” now defunct) so I could keep in touch with my friends while I was away for the summer.


Our pits weren’t particularly straight and were pretty unproductive, until we stopped digging under the house (to find the foundations?) and started digging behind where the house once was.


I still remember walking up to Jamie, our TA, and asking him straight-up if I could actually be an archaeologist. He said Yes! See, until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me–I was a socio-cultural anthro major (explains a lot, right!) and was just taking the class for my field credit. I wanted to go to Greece, but was broke, so I ended up digging for Maria Franklin in Dallas. And, eventually, I made it to Berkeley. Not too shabby, really. And ever since that summer I knew that I wanted to dig for the rest of my life.

Anyway, it looks like the Juliette Street project has a lovely website where you can learn more about the history of the site and of the amazing church located right next door. I have a few more photos of the site and the participants in the dig on flickr.

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