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

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7 responses to “Archaeological Field Schools and Management Styles

  1. excavation management and on-site hierarchies … you are touching a very tricky subject ! Adressing exactly the same themes onces got me nearly fired from a dig :-)

  2. I was having a similar discussion with a colleague the other day actually, about how there is no real training in graduate school in the practicalities of running an excavation, in specialist analyses, and field methods. We are instead bogged down in huge language requirements (at least in my old dept), which are important, but need to be balanced by real-world training.

    As you noted, these bad habits in the field get perpetuated and, I might add, are likely the primary underlying cause behind the hesitancy and outright fight against greater transparency and open-source sharing of data in our field. No one wants to be “found out” that they are digging sloppy!

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