How to get an ‘A’ in Field School

School is out, summer is here, and that means that all across the world, college students are getting ready for their first archaeological field schools. The field school means many things to many people: for some, it’s a way to get a bunch of credits completed, for others it’s an opportunity to find out if archaeology is what they want to continue doing. For archaeologists, everyone’s field school holds a special meaning, as it was their first foray into the field. Field schools can be held in the woods, overseas, in deserts, or on your own college campus. While it isn’t difficult to get a good passing grade in most field schools, there are some ways, if you’re in the field with me, to ensure that you’re grade is going to be top-knotch (thanks to all those who joined in the conversation on Twitter. Many of your ideas influenced this post!).

This is Real Research

Treat it as such. The site you’re working on is not some practice ground for archaeological methods: we’re going to take the data you excavate and use it to conduct archaeological research to teach us about the past. This means that the interpretation of our shared human experience relies on YOU to excavate the archaeological materials appropriately and with the utmost care. Will you mess up and make mistakes? Yes. That’s part of life and part of doing research. However, if you do all the things below effectively, the damage will be both less likely to occur and more likely to be mitigated. Also, consider for a moment the rare opportunity you have: you’re getting to take part in actual research. Not many people get to do that. Be aware of that privilege and responsibility!


Archaeology is a team-oriented process. There are no enemies, rivalries, or competition on the archaeology site: we’re all there for the same reasons, to conduct research and learn how to do archaeology properly. This means helping others learn the techniques and solve problems, showing up early to help get the equipment set up, helping your classmate backfill, help pick up at the end of the day, spread the tarps over excavation units, or help bail water after it rains. It also means that if there are disputes, you bring them to your field directors or supervisors, so that we can help mitigate them: the field school is not a place for petty disputes that undermine our ability to work together.

Give Your Maximum Effort

Yes, John the football player is probably going to be able to move more dirt than everyone else. But archaeology isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality, and quality of effort fits in that category. So, you may not move as much dirt as John. That’s okay: just because you’re moving a lot of dirt doesn’t mean you’re doing good archaeology. What I’m interested in is the quality of your work, and the amount of effort you’re putting into the activity. This isn’t to say you’re allowed to move slowly, it means that you are expected to move as much dirt as you can while maintaining a high quality of work. That ratio is different for everyone. This goes into every aspect of the field school: screening, note taking, surveying, measuring, mapmaking, etc. Anyone can draw a map. But is it a good one that you took the time to draw well, or does it resemble a 5 year-old’s backyard treasure map? With that said, did you take a long time to draw it and it still looks like a child’s map? Basically, the harder you work, and the better quality of the results, the better grade you’re going to get.

Take Great Notes

I’m not talking about classroom notes (although that can’t hurt, either). I’m talking about your research notes. I’m talking about the archaeological paperwork. I’m talking about your maps. Remember, your archaeology notes are not for you: they are for the researcher that comes along in one, five, or ten years to recreate what you did. If your notes are a) sloppy b) poorly thought out c) incomplete or d) illegible, those future archaeologists can’t do that effectively. Similarly, these notes are crucial if something goes wrong: be explicit about the mistakes you made so that we can understand why the results look the way they do. I’m not going to dock your grade for making an excavation mistake (unless it’s the result of minimal effort, lack of teamwork, or anything else listed here), but I will be angry if you don’t mention that mistake in your notes. Not sure if something should be noted or not? That’s a tell tale sign that you should probably write it down. More is better, in this case.

Follow Instructions

Your directors and supervisors have been here before. We’ve done this every summer for years. We do, in fact, know what we’re talking about. When we ask you to do something, we expect you to follow through on it. Can you ask questions about it? Yes. Can you offer alternatives? Certainly, and we’ll consider them, discuss them with you, and we’ll decide what the best approach is. But when we ask you to “take that unit down an extra tenth,” we don’t mean half a foot, we mean a tenth. Also, when we say, “don’t walk so close to the unit’s edge” don’t respond with “I knnoooww.” Move. You will never feel stupider then when you collapse an excavation unit wall with your foot, particularly five minutes after you were asked to move and didn’t (this, by the way, is when it will happen).

Be Involved and Be an Expert

You know your unit better than anyone else in the entire world. When I ask you about what you’re finding or what is happening in the unit, it’s not a quiz: I have no idea what the answer is, and I want to know you’re interpretation of what’s happening. You’ve been in it, digging. What do you think is happening? What do you think the soils are telling us? What could the artifacts you’re finding mean? Get involved in the research and interpretation. Ask us questions about what we’re finding, why we think things are happening the way they are. This is the fun part: figure out the puzzle. A: “Well, we took it down another half a foot, and it looks like there is a subtle soil change starting to occur in the northern half of the unit. We’re also seeing more cut nails and window glass. Perhaps we’re coming up on the occupational layer for the structure?” Not A: “We dug some more and there are more artifacts.” I don’t care if you’re right or wrong: I care if you’re trying.

Love the Public

When someone who is a member of the public approaches the unit, and they ask you a question, stop what you’re doing, approach them, make eye-contact, and give them a detailed answer. Start a conversation with them, and encourage them to ask more questions. Show them shiny stuff (but not anything gold), and show them not shiny stuff, but tell them why it’s important. Make sure that they leave the site knowing a) something they didn’t before; b) that they can return anytime to learn more (preferably with friends); and c) where else they can go to learn more (like a website). We’re in the business of building relationships with the public, both for their own benefit and for the preservation of cultural resources, and excavators are our public face. That means you.

Your Turn: What are some of the most important parts of field school that you think students need to consider? What does it take to get an A on your program? Where are your field schools this year?


All these photos are from the MSU Campus Archaeology Program Field School I directed in 2010.


  1. Andrew Wilkinson
    May 23, 2012

    I treat field schools like job interviews.When you put a good effort in the rewards return  ten-fold.

  2. Tonia Deetz Rock
    May 29, 2012

    I also think that if you have previous experience, and the new site you are working on has a different way of doing things, embrace the difference, do not spend time saying things like “But we always did it this way . . .” If you are in an accredited field school, chances are pretty good they know what they are doing. There is huge benefit in learning different systems, different approaches. Certainly ask your supervisor questions about the difference, so you can see why they do it this way instead of that, but do not make it a challenge. If you stay in the field, your broad experience with different methods will be a plus.

  3. Stephanie Sperling
    May 31, 2012

    Great post, Terry!  I’m sharing this with my summer interns here at the Lost Towns Project.

  4. Shaun Phillips
    May 13, 2014

    I always loved interacting wtih the public. Unfortunately, most of the sites I’ve worked on have been well away from public spaces (farm fields, military bases, etc).


Leave a Reply