What should be taught in an archaeology field school? 2

Trowel_Ronald_VermeijsMy last few posts have been getting some serious discussion amongst the archaeologists I know and from hundreds of archaeos I don’t know. Most of the feedback I’ve been getting has been either positive or at least benign. But I’ve also heard that my posts have pissed off a few people, primarily PhD students or recent PhD graduates. These folks seem to have taken my statements personally and are offended. That was not my intent. I created this blog for serious discussions about working in cultural resource management and historic preservation. I wanted to talk about the stuff we don’t normally talk about in school or, openly, at work.

Things never change until we talk about them. PhDs don’t learn CRM archaeology unless they realize they need to know it. Without discussion, undergraduates don’t know that CRM exists or that most archaeologists work in CRM until they graduate (I know because I was once one of those folks). Companies will still complain about the inadequacies of college training unless they step back and ask, “What can we do to remedy this situation?” Asking questions is the foundation of the learning process. In every post, I also urge every reader to write a comment below or send me an email because we can only start addressing these issues by first acknowledging that they exist and then discussing how we are to deal with them.

In the last few days, I’ve asked a number of archaeologists I know how we can better prepare post-secondary students for a career in archaeology. We all agreed that there are two major ways archaeology training could be improved: 1) field schools that actually taught skills needed in the real world, and 2) working on real CRM projects during graduate school.

As a continuation of Monday’s post (Why aren’t archaeologist receiving better training in college?), I thought I’d summarize some of the things field schools should teach in order to better prepare their students for careers as a CRM field tech or later in graduate school and beyond. (FYI: I wrote this with the assumption that a field school is 4–6 weeks long and managed by an individuals that aren’t necessarily CRM archaeologists). These recommendations are the outgrowth of conversations this week with 5 other archaeologists that have graduate degrees, have taken at least one field school, and have each worked in CRM for 6­–12 years. So, this isn’t just coming straight out of my head.

The Goals:

  • Provide students with a good idea of what they can expect as field archaeologists.
  • Give them an introduction to the concepts behind archaeology field methods as well as the mechanics of archaeological fieldwork.
  • Provide a toolkit of experiences and a quality, comprehensive field guide that they can use in whatever archaeology career they may choose to pursue.

1)  Intro to Archaeological Field Theory and Philosophies

Students should be aware of basic archaeological concepts (For example, the basics of soil development and geological deposition processes, soil stratigraphy, the law of superposition, the idea that features or soil anomalies represent different types of human activities in the past) and the reasons why we do them. They should be aware or the reasons why we dig the way we do (Why we’re using different types of excavation units [trenches vs. shovel probes vs. backhoe stripping units ect.]?). They need to know the concepts behind the recordation system employed on this project (Why are we using this type of unit/feature/artifact nomenclature system?). And, they need to have some idea what’s going to happen with the collected data? (publication, report, dissertations, ect.) and how this contributes to the project’s research goals. Students would also benefit from know what those research goals are so they can keep them in mind as the project goes on.

Many of you may disagree with the idea that field school students should know why they’re doing what you’re telling them to do, but these aren’t human backhoes. They’re people that are paying your wages and helping further your career. Also, the Millennial generation is very wary of listening to leaders that do not have good explanations. Our youth are passionate about causes and are more than willing to work hard for volunteer jobs only after you’ve explained the reasons behind these causes and how they will benefit.

2)  Recordation Mechanics

Students need to have a pretty good grasp of the recordation system employed on this project. They need to know how to obtain unit numbers, how to CORRECTLY fill out paperwork, what to write in unit/feature/level descriptions, how to use a photolog, how to take GOOD field photos, how to draw a sketch map/plan view/profile. They also need to know how to use field recordation equipment including digital cameras, a total station, and (if they still exist) a 35mm manual film camera and a theodolite. (Optional: students should learn how to use a hand-held Trimble or Garmin if you have access to one). Note-taking is a lost art (and something I’m really bad at). Students should have the chance to take notes, but they need to keep their musings professional. Keep personal issues on Snapchat or Vine. (You should also have a social media policy that will prevent students from Instagraming photos of burials or other inappropriate behavior. Or, wasting tons of time Tweeting their every movement instead of digging).

The idea here is to teach people how to record stuff in the field without fu*king it up. They need explicit examples of how you want things done and a little explanation behind why you’re doing it this way (see guideline #1). This will help them in almost any career, but especially in archaeology.

3)  Excavation Mechanics

Students need to learn how to dig and when to stop digging. They also need to know how to set up an excavation unit and what to do when they encounter artifacts and features in that unit. It’s also important for them to know how you want artifacts and other materials collected and sampled (ex. how to take a charcoal, soil, float sample). Most importantly, students need an introduction to “seeing” soil changes and differentiating between anthropogenic sediments and natural ones. They also need to know how to use hand tools (trowels, shovels, picks, hammers, machetes ect.) and power tools (blowers, weed whackers, ect.).

This is actually a strength of most field schools. I don’t have much to recommend here.

4)  Archaeological Survey Mechanics

Survey is rarely taught in field school, although it’s the most frequent type of archaeological activity in CRM. Fortunately, it doesn’t take more than a day or so to teach students this task. Students need to know basic land navigation skills (how to read a map, how to use a compass and map, how to establish and walk a bearing, how to estimate distances and evaluate terrain based on map features, ect.). It sounds like a lot, but thousands of Boy Scouts learn this stuff each year before they’re 15-years-old. And, there are dozens of books on the topic that you can use to brush up on these skills before you have to teach them.

Students should also learn how to identify and mark archaeological materials when they’re encountered on a survey. I know shovel probes are used in much of the United States, but I don’t advocate doing a shovel probe survey unless it’s part of your research design. No need damaging the site just so students can learn how to dig a little cylindrical hole.

You can also do mock surveys in urban areas and teach students how to look for potentially historical architecture and modifications to buildings and the landscape (If this is part of your research design, feel free to do an actual urban landscape survey). They can even use their compasses, some forms, and a camera to do an informal historic building survey (Just make sure you aren’t making unnecessary NRHP-style recommendations on someone’s house. People don’t like finding out their private property has been recommended eligible to a historic register without prior knowledge because some students needed a summer project).

5)  Artifact Identification and Processing

With any luck, your students will find artifacts. This should give them an opportunity to learn how to identify artifacts, how to collect them (i.e. your sampling strategy), how you want them bagged and tagged using your recordation system, and knowledge of how the bag catalog works. They should also be given a chance to help with artifact processing (washing, drying, numbering ect.) and cataloging. You should explain the quality control system you use to make sure the catalog is accurate. (Optional: they could also be made aware of/given the chance to participate in the curation process).

6)  Occupational Health and Safety

Despite the fact that health and safety is a trending issue in CRM archaeology, most field schools do not spend much time on the topic (If you’re curious, you can click here to learn more about archaeology-specific health and safety). Students need to learn more than just, “don’t grab a rattlesnake by its tail” because their future employers will undoubtedly have more comprehensive rules (at least they should).

In field school, students should learn why health and safety is important (Hint: because archaeologists don’t die quickly from the injuries/exposures we receive in the field. Archaeology creates lifelong injuries that can take years to manifest). They also need to know the university’s safety philosophy, rules, and guidelines. Students need to learn the basics for staying safe in the environment they’re working in and how to reduce the chance of repetitive use and other occupational injuries. Finally, they need to know what to do if there is an injury.

7)  Optional: Introduction to Historic Preservation and Grant-Funded Archaeological Research

Some may say this is just contributing to the divide between CRM and academic archaeology, but I do think it’s worth discussing the different goals behind legislated cultural resource management and grant-funded “pure” research. There are some differences and similarities that I think field school students should be aware of. They should also know that archaeology under the guise of cultural resource management is mandated by federal and (oftentimes) state and local law. Students also need to be aware of the ethics, obligations, and reasons for grant-funded research.

Many of these guidelines are just derivatives of the clarion calls made by Hester (1963) and Green and Doershuk (1998). Others are things that universities are already doing. The most important thing any university can do to improve their field schools is create a comprehensive field manual for the places where their students will be working and make that manual available far and wide. A free eBook or PDF posted on the anthro departmental website would more than suffice. This is an invaluable form of information sharing that could help schools see what their competition is doing and devise ways for improving upon their existing system. And, they could start doing this today.

Who am I to create these guidelines? Nobody, really. Just an archaeologist and PhD student that wants to help other archaeologists forge careers doing the work they’ve always dreamed of. Perhaps, I’m unaware of the current state of undergraduate field schools. Maybe this stuff is already being taught. I know, when I worked at field schools a decade ago, very few of these things were covered. We mostly just taught students how to dig. We rarely told them why they were doing what they were doing. We talked about snakes and ticks, but never mentioned other aspects of health and safety. Some students got sun poisoning. One lady got dehydration so bad she had to go to the hospital. The response: well they signed the release and knew what they were getting into. They’re adults who should know their own limits. Not our problem.

I also got a “talking to” when I suggested we should be telling students about CRM and some of the broader methodological concepts behind archaeological excavations. “Most of these kids aren’t going to become archaeologists,” said the field director I worked under at one field school. “Just get them to dig up artifacts and we’ll do all the rest.” I hope things have changed in the last 10 years since I worked a field school. Because we need to do a better job of preparing students for life in the real world, be it CRM, graduate school, or as a professor.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “What should be taught in an archaeology field school?

  • Jon

    Interesting post. I’d like to post from a UK perspective to see if that offers any new thoughts. I’ve worked on a couple of non-uni field schools here in the UK and am a professional commercial archaeologist. I didn’t go to university. I’m sure that there are many differences between our two countries but entry level fieldwork positions here really require good knowledge of the basics. I worry that you’re going to end up with students with too shallow a range of knowledge that they’ll forget anyway as it’s not ingrained. I’d go for dig, record, interpret preferably on a range of archaeology until it’s second nature with plenty of hand planning and section drawing. This should include level taking too. Basic artefact processing and sample-taking & processing too. Once students can demonstrate ability in that, probably after attending two 4-6 week schools then offer the chance to do GPS survey work and assistant supervisory work, including moderately complex matrices. Supervising a small area is one of the best ways to test your own knowledge and learn the mechanics of how to run a site. Basic H&S is a must as well. I feel that theory and philosophy will have been taught in the classroom and will no no doubt come out in the normal discussion between trainer and student. In fact, this kind of discussion is essential so making sure you have the right number of trainers and assistants is utterly vital (1:2 ratio.) Finally, and it may just be a US thing but my dictionary agrees with me that recordation really isn’t a word. Recording is!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Recordation isn’t a word, but most terms in archaeology begin as figments of our imaginations so I’m hoping to be grammatically correct someday.

      Your tips are absolutely spot on. The current project it to try and convince schools to listen to folks like you.

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