Why aren’t archaeologists receiving better training in college? 1

Lecturer_DesbenoitI am not the first or the last to ask this question. It seems a very fitting question to ask after writing two widely circulated blog posts positing why are field techs teaching PhDs basic field skills and explaining that archaeologists can earn graduate degrees where they actually learn how to do cultural resource management archaeology. Most commenters and social media responses to these posts indicated that the best place for learning these basic skills in a university context is the undergraduate field school. Many of us feel like there is no way a university can teach every nuance of CRM because so much of that industry depends on experiential learning. I agree, adding the caveat that most basic skills can and should be learned in field school, which is typically the only field experience we get while still in college.

For almost 60 years, American archaeologists have been asking: Why aren’t colleges doing a better job training archaeologists?

American archaeologists have long noticed that a specific skillset is required for work in commercial archaeology and cultural resource management. James J. Hester wrote an opinion piece in American Antiquity (28[3]:392—394]) in 1963 urging universities to better prepare their graduates for work in “salvage archaeology” (a fitting term for what we now call CRM). At the time there was actually a deficit of archaeologists, a problem we seem to have amply solved today, and Hester stated that more archaeologists were needed to handle all the compliance work that was planned at that time. He also acknowledged that most archaeology graduates were not equipped to work in salvage archaeology.

His abstract clearly states the problem and his solution: “The archaeological profession is currently faced with a shortage of trained personnel, primarily field archaeologists with experience in salvage archaeology. A training program is outlined whereby this shortage can be alleviated. The program recommended consists of a series of courses on the undergraduate level which specifically train the student to meet the demands of a professional position in salvage archaeology. It is anticipated that such a program will attract more students to consider archaeology as a career” (Hester 1963:392).

Hester goes on to explain that the standards for becoming an archaeologist (a BA, graduate degree, and a field school) was a lengthy process that didn’t always create an individual that could work in CRM. This system was created during a time when there when the few jobs in archaeology could be found in a university setting. He asked, “With the growing need for salvage archaeology, we may seriously question the continuing adherence to this single standard of competence” (Hester 1963:393).

His solution had three parts (pg. 393):

1)      Alter education standards to recognize the fact that there are several different types of archaeology that will require different levels of competence and training.

2)      Recognize that salvage archaeology is primarily a technician’s job that requires a basic background in archaeology and field salvage techniques.

3)      Implement BA programs that produce competent field archaeologists

While I disagree with the statement that salvage archaeology is primarily a tech job, I think he was on the mark with his recommendation to reorganize archaeology curricula in order to better prepare graduates for CRM. He recommended changing the current BA system to include two years of coursework that familiarizes students with general anthropology and how archaeology articulates with this science. The second two years were to be applied courses where students learn the legal background of salvage archaeology and other basic field skills (how to read right-of-way maps, record keeping, using power tools, excavation techniques, the nature of contracts, lab analysis, report writing, field mapping, ect.). Field school was to be a summer-long application of field methods where students, eventually, assumed supervision of laborers. Despite this ambitious, perhaps unrealistic curriculum, Hester still remarks that some on-the-job training will be required after graduation. But, the resulting graduate would be better than those that followed the traditional training method.

I’m too young to know if Hester’s initial call for changes in archaeological training were heeded by universities, but, given the current state of anthro BA training, it’s more likely they did not. Times changed and there was no longer a deficit of CRM archaeologists by the 1980s. Nevertheless, calls to better prepare archaeologists for CRM continued afterward and remain a perennial issue in our field. By the 1980s, the need for better commercial archaeology training was no longer limited to the United States.

Isabel McBryde’s 1980 article “Educational Goals of University Schools of Prehistory and Archaeology: Mechanick Trades in the Ivory Tower?” in Australian Archaeology (11:72—80) mirrors some of the complaints highlighted in Hester’s article. McBryde frames her piece with a 1978 quote from a professor in London University’s Institute of Archaeology who said, “…we are not in the business to turn out merely archaeological technicians,” reflecting the common sentiment of department heads charged with training the world’s archaeologists (McBryde 1980:72). She also acknowledged the continued quest to explain the ‘relevance’ of archaeology in universities in terms of its ability to produce individuals ready for employment in the “real world” (McBryde 1980:72—73). Rather than teaching an ever-increasing number of archaeologists, McBryde asks if it’s responsible to continue training archaeologists unless alternative career options exist (a question that should have been asked years ago in the U.K. and U.S.). McBryde suggests specializing archaeological training, including training for individuals that will find work in public archaeology and cultural resource management, citing that in the 1980s: “In both Britain and Australia there has been the complaint that work of this kind [state-mandated compliance archaeology] has been of poor quality, that university courses offer too little training for the major area of employment in which graduates are deployed” (McBryde 1980:77).

Calls for better training in graduate school continued and a number of CRMers lamented the lack of preparedness in new graduates. Robert G. Elston documented several shortcomings he’d noticed in archaeology graduates in his Journal of California and Great Basin Archaeology article “Archaeological Research in the Context of Cultural Resource Management: Pushing Back in the 1990s” (1992; 14[1]:37—48). He states: “I often find inadequate technical training among applicants for staff level jobs, particularly with regard to writing and editing, computer skills, quantitative analysis, use of technologically advanced equipment, and in geomorphology, soils, and stratigraphy. Dirt is the scaffolding of the archaeological record. A complete archaeologist knows the genesis and transformations of soil in landscapes, and can describe them” (Elston 1992:44).

For Elston, this lack of skills is because, “…there is a tendency for post-graduate anthropology programs to skimp on coursework emphasizing practice (field and laboratory methods) and to completely ignore the need for managerial skills or knowledge of the system in which archaeology is conducted. These deficiencies are often justified by assuming students eventually will “pick it up if they need it.” This was perhaps a viable strategy when virtually all archaeologists taught in universities, but large numbers of archaeologists now are employed in nonacademic jobs. Consequently, a person with a fresh M.A. or Ph.D. in anthropology may go directly to an agency or contracting firm unprepared for work in full-time research or management. Archaeologists going to academic jobs may be ill equipped to deal with bureaucracies, ethics, project management, and technical aspects of archaeological research” (Elston 1992:43). Interestingly, this reason highlighted in the comments to my posts which were written over 20 years after Elston’s article was published. (I’ve also summarized this piece in a previous post and Dr. Elston was pleased with my take on it. Read more here).

In their landmark Journal of Archaeological Research article “Cultural Resource Management and American Archaeology,” William Green and John Doershuk (1998; 6[2]:121–167) noted that the best way to help students gain the skills needed for work in CRM could be accomplished by academic institutions reestablishing ties to the CRM industry. The authors note that, in the case of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program (ITARP), the maintenance of this university/CRM organization relationship has produced quality reports and provided a variety of student training opportunities (Green and Doershuk 1998:138).

Green and Doershuk disagree with the idea that schools should be creating “pure CRM” graduates. With regard to improving student training, they go on to explain archaeologists could be trained along the lines of how teaching hospitals prepare doctors. “This training should be geared toward producing good archaeologists capable of successful careers in either (or both) CRM settings and academia.” They explain, “…too narrowly focused CRM training programs…would not help in the long run because the discipline dies not need practitioners with an overly specialized CRM-only orientation and with limited cognizance of the larger issues of anthropological and archaeological method and theory (Green and Doershuk 1998:139–140). I would argue that too much emphasis on theory and not enough on applied methods creates the situation where we’re at today—archaeologists that think they can think, but don’t know they can’t do archaeology.

Archaeologists continued to write articles asking for students to be trained in field skills well into the 2000s. The saga continued. The Society for American Archaeology has frequently taken up this topic. For example, a 2004 SAA Archaeological Record issue (4[2]) was designed to profile the state of academic archaeology and had three articles that addressed the issue of training the next generation of archaeologists. Susan D. Gillespie discussed the effect of disciplinary fragmentation (i.e. the hyper-specialization of professors across the four-fields of anthropology) on students. She notes, “Within the past 15 years or so, I’ve noticed increasing confusion, frustration, anxiety, and even anger expressed by students because they are receiving contradictory information in their classes. Some encounter hostility or denigration from professors towards viewpoints they are learning in other courses” (Gillespie 2004:14). I inferred from this article, instead of focusing on preparing students for the future, many professors are actually weakening the training of future archaeos because of personal politics and the unnecessary fragmentation of anthropology as a university discipline.

In that same Archaeological Record issue, Anne M. Wolley Vawser surveyed the state of teaching cultural resource management in universities across the United States. She noted, at that point (2004), not many schools offered graduate degrees in CRM. The few that did tended to obscure the nature of their programs by naming it something like “MA in public archaeology” or “MA in applied archaeology.” No university offered a PhD-level training in CRM.

The cornerstone of that issue is the article “CRM Training in Academic Archaeology: A Personal Perspective” by Thomas G. Whitley (2004; 4[2]:20—25). Whitley asked the perennial question: Why is academia failing archaeology? At a time when the vast majority of archaeologists work in the multi-million dollar CRM industry, “…why would any academic insist on perpetuating the notion that they do not need to concern themselves with CRM training?” (Whitley 2004:23). He came up with several rhetorical answers, including the one cited by the individuals that commented on my blog posts: CRM should be taught on the job by CRM professionals, not academics. Whitley concludes by stating that university programs cannot provide the full range of CRM experience that evolves with years of training. However, this knowledge could be partially addressed with apprenticeships and certification programs developed and implemented by private-sector companies. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I was a panelist on Tom Whitley’s discussion of CRM training on Episode 25 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. He’s a great archaeologist that gave up an upper-level corporate position with Brockington and Associates, Inc. to start a commercial archaeology graduate program at the University of Western Australia. I urge you to learn more about Dr. Whitley’s program by listening to his podcast episode).

This is just a cosmetic survey of the numerous articles that have asked questions like: Why are field techs teaching PhDs basic field skills? And, how come universities aren’t doing a better job teaching the next generation? This has been a lingering problem since the advent of cultural resource management and it remains paramount today. My blog posts are just part of a long debate that has been roiling for over 50 years.

I have some suggestions on what should be taught in field schools in order for BAs to have the skills necessary to find work in CRM—skills that could also be applied later on in graduate school. My suggestions are similar to what Hester wrote 50 years ago with some influence from Green and Doershuk. But, first, I’d like to hear what you have to say. Please send me an email or write a comment below with suggestions on how we should be preparing archaeology students for the future.


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One thought on “Why aren’t archaeologists receiving better training in college?

  • Jeff Baker

    One of the issues with academic training of field school students is the way field schools are run by major departments. In many schools, the actual teaching of the students is done by grad students and/or upper level undergrads, and not directly by the professor. The experience and knowledge gained by the students is directly related to the experience of the grad student who was teaching them. Years ago, I worked with two individuals who went to the same field school in the same year. One of the individuals worked under a second year grad student whose only experience was two previous years in field school. When I met this person, they had minimal skills in excavation, and had no clue how to use a shovel to dig. They had only excavated with a trowel. At one point, I had to confiscate their trowel to keep them from using it while digging through disturbed overburden. The other individual had worked with a grad student working on their Ph.D., who had worked for several years in CRM before starting their Ph.D program. The individual taught by this person had some basic skills, and within a couple days needed minimal supervision.

    Basically, many field schools (but definitely not all) are taught by people whose only experience is in field schools. They are incapable of teaching students the skills needed to survive in CRM because they don’t have the skills themselves.

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