What do you think should be included in an archaeological field school? 4

Archaeological field school needs to be about more than just diggingYesterday, I received good news. The property owner of the Erma Hayman House in Boise, Idaho has given permission to conduct an archaeology project on this property. This will be the next step in my dissertation work on The River Street Digital History Project, but it is also an excellent opportunity for the local community to reclaim another small piece of its heritage.

The field school will be administered by the University of Idaho and is part of the River Street Public Archaeology Project– a collaboration between the descendant community, the City of Boise, the University of Idaho, several Idaho professors from across the state, and me. It has been a long time coming and will be a great resource for the city.

Now that I’ve got permission, the principal investigator for the project (Dr. Mark Warner) and I are trying to work out the details. I thought it would be a good idea to ask all of you readers: What do you think should be included in an archaeological field school?

What must be included?

Field school is a college course, so, hypothetically, there should be some sort of academic exercise. The field school I took in rural Oklahoma was one of the best ones I’ve participated in. We were given a small booklet of archaeology articles. Once a week, we met together to discuss those articles. I remember using them as references in my CRM job years after I took the course.

Since it’s a school, there should also be some sort of teaching and learning; preferably, learning archaeology skills. This, somehow, seems to be lacking in many field schools because it’s all too common to meet CRMers with a PhD that do not know how to do basic field activities.

  • At bare minimum, you should learn how to:
  • Fill out field paperwork
  • Take notes
  • Take QUALITY digital photographs
  • Operate and take care of field equipment (shovel, trowel, blowers, GPS, ect.)
  • Do hot, sweaty grunt work and still get along with other people

If you’re attending a field school with an excavation component, you should learn how to:

  • Set up an excavation unit
  • Dig stratigraphically
  • See archaeological features in the dirt
  • Explain what you did and what you saw on field paperwork

Working in the land of the digital natives

Those are pretty basic fieldwork activities that most people do learn in a field school. However, the cultural resource management industry is migrating towards more cloud-based and digital field recording systems. By the time today’s undergraduates finish their degree, they are probably going to need to know how to use an iPad or tablet computer to do fieldwork because most of the companies they will work for are transitioning away from paper.

This is a whole new skill set that can be taught in a field school, but there are few archaeologists that are adept enough at field recording systems that they could teach this information to students. I’m a novice at tablet recording but I’m definitely going to try and use it in the field this summer.

Field school is work experience

When most of us apply to our first archaeological technician position, field school is the only field experience we’ve ever had. This is important because, when early archaeology careerists start applying for jobs, they’re probably going to list their field school on their resume and describe the things they learned in the cover letter. Sometimes the research objectives of field school PIs prevents them from realizing that there is more to a field school than just collecting data. This is one of the few college courses that can be used to actually prepare students for life after college.

The best thing about field school is its hands-on training. The skills learned can actually be applied to a job in CRM after graduation. It is very important to maximize the teaching potential in field schools so students walk away with an experience they can use later in their careers.

Of course, I have my own objectives for running a field school in Boise including the fact that I want to use this data for my dissertation. But, I’m also an African American from Boise and I want to give something back to my hometown. The River Street Neighborhood was home to Boise’s black population for over 60 years. It was the only place we were allowed to live because of structural racism. Now, the neighborhood is on the fast-track for redevelopment, which means most of the historical sites will be gone before we know it.

I also have an obligation to make sure that the students that attend this field school will benefit in more ways than college credits. I want to help teach them career skills that they can use long after the class is over.

What do you think should be part of a good archaeological field school?

Write a comment below or send me an email.

NOTE: Chris Webster and I will be recording an episode of the CRM Archaeology Podcast about what should be taught in archaeology field schools on Thursday, March 26, at 5pm PDT. Send an email to chris@archaeologypodcastnetwork.com if you want to call into the podcast and tell us what you think should be taught. If you’re an undergraduate looking for a field school, call in and tell us what you’ want to learn. Thanks.

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4 thoughts on “What do you think should be included in an archaeological field school?

  • Bob Muckle

    Besides the basic field techniques, I think it is important to teach the culture of field archaeology and ethics. I’ve taught field schools for 13 of the past 16 summers. I’ve had tremendous feedback from multiple academic and CRM archaeologists who eventually employ my former students. They tell me that they appreciate the work ethic and understanding of expectations of my former students (eg. showing up on time every day, familiarity with what constitutes sexual harassment, appreciating that they represent the company and the discipline, the importance of working with others, knowing when it is okay and not okay to goof around, never plant an artifact as a joke, and more).

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Work ethic and good ethics in general is definitely something that should be taught, but isn’t always. I hope we’re working on the harassment in the field issue because a lot of these bad behaviors start in field school.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.

  • Mandy Ranslow

    I think including articles into the field school is an excellent idea. Lunch time discussions on the readings can be quite beneficial.

    It sounds like your field school will be in a neighborhood. Is it in a place where passers-by will see you working? How about including a small public component that will allow for your students (and staff) to engage with members of the community. You could assign a student or two at certain times to be available to chat about the project with people who stop by (I’m stealing this idea from Mount Vernon). Or you could have an Open House day where your students show-and-tell what is going on (I’m stealing this from a friend at Farmington High School). Not only would the public have a better understanding of your work, but your students will become more familiar with working with the public and hopefully see the benefits of sharing the excitement of archaeology.

    I’m also wondering if you could incorporate a field trip or two to a local historic site? Sometimes it’s fun to get out of the field (maybe on a rain day) and learn more about local history and culture.

    Best of luck!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Mandy, thank you for reading and giving me suggestions.

      The project will be in an urban neighborhood and the archaeology project was the result of suggestions from neighborhood descendants. They have been trying to figure out a way to commemorate the history of their former home before it is lost to development. I started the whole thing by creating the River Street Digital History Project (http://www.riverstreethistory.com/about-the-river-street-digital-history-project/).

      I will try to put as much of the archaeology component on the digital history website because it is an extension of what was done last year. The city of Boise actually has a great track record of public archaeology projects that have gotten large support from the community. I definitely will take your suggestion of having open house days and guided tours for the public. The Idaho Archaeological Council is also participating and will help screen and schedule volunteers who will help dig or process artifacts. They’ve learned that, unless somebody schedules the volunteers, hundreds of people will show up and swarm the project.

      Finally, field trips are very important for several reasons. They help the students have a better idea of the local history but they also position the project within the larger history of the local region. I definitely plan on having some guest speakers and field trips throughout the project.

      Boise is a really fun place with a great history/prehistory but you have to get outside and enjoy it. Since, I grew up there I can be a tour guide for the students.

      Again, thanks for reading. If you think of anything else feel free to comment or email me.

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