20 Years of Field Work: What I’ve Learned

On my flight home from Greece last week I got to thinking about archaeological field work and what I learned over my 20 years in the field. I think most of what I learned has had more too do with how to be an effective academic (and colleague) and less to do with any particular period or class of objects or buildings.

So here’s my list: 

1. Collaboration. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from doing field archaeology is the absolute necessity (and extraordinary privilege) of collaboration both in the field and on all aspects of a project. It’s not that I ever doubted this, but field work really drove home that point that most knowledge in my field (and probably in all fields) comes as part of a long conversation with colleagues and a familiarity born of the shared experience of practice.

My understanding of the collaborative experiences of fieldwork has seeped into almost everything I do. The Digital Press is a collaborative press, my work on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is essential a collective (although we still portion out the writing and “credit,” there is real reason to imagine every work from this project as the product of our collective), and my future plans to produce a introduction to Early Christian archaeology is a collaboration as well.

2. Budgeting. One the most basic skills that I’ve learned (painfully in many cases) is how to budget money and time on an archaeological project. The basic limiting factors in most academic excavations are time and money, and both require careful budgeting. Fortunately, for the last 20 years, I’ve worked with people who have more or less managed our budget on a day-to-day basis (and we avoided overruns  with the exception of maybe one year). 

For better or for worse, I’ve generally had significant influence over how we budget our time. While I’d never claim to have avoided the two most basic mistakes in all archaeological time management – running a team ragged and not budgeting enough flexibility into a schedule to accommodate discoveries – I think our teams have worked at a relatively steady and productive clip while still being humane in our treatment of field teams and staff. The longer I’ve done archaeology, the less I can wrap my head around these projects that work 10 or 12 hour days in the field or chew through their staff with brutal daily schedules and unrealistic expectations of efficiency. I can understand when projects work below idling bulldozers or under obligations to host countries or communities, but for most my, purely-academic projects, I have come to internalize the need to couple tightly available resources, research questions, and basic humanity (especially as I get older and start to physically break down). 

3. Flexibility. In most parts of my life, I’m totally dependent on a schedule. It might be a crazy schedule or a schedule that only exists in my own head, but it’s a schedule. Schedules don’t work very well on archaeological projects. Someone forgets their boots. Someone else gets stung by a wasp. Someone else finds a cool site that the field directors have to see despite it being lunch time. The best finds are always recovered on the last day. 

As someone who depends on a schedule to produce order in an otherwise chaotic world, archaeology has taught me that I have to be flexible in my daily schedule, in data collection, in my ability to understand and process information, and in my approach to producing meaningful results. I think that this is slowly spilling into my life outside of field archaeology and allowing me to spend less time expecting the world to conform to my schedule and categories.  

4. Patience. A close friend of mine once told me when I was becoming impatient at the pace of fieldwork that “there is always more archaeology.” While I still bristle at the need to approach fieldwork and writing patiently, I recognize – more and more each year – that archaeology takes time. I’m slowly learning (see what I did there) that slow archaeology is more than just being patient in the field and taking the time to understand not only what we are studying, but how we are studying it, but it also involves recognizing that all the archaeology can’t be done at once.

Writing takes time. Reading takes time. Thinking takes time. Revising takes time. Tidying up datasets takes time. Preparing illustrations takes time. And just because I’m frantic to do something and get something done doesn’t mean that everyone else will be. I constantly have to remind myself that every collaborator is also collaborating (er…cheating on me?) with other people on other projects that also demand our time.   

5. Collegiality. Finally, academia offers space for all kinds of marginal personalities and difficult people. I think I probably rank among them. But on a field project you have to at least try to rein in your personal crazy to get along with other people and pursue common goals. I’m not going to say that I’ve always been successful doing that, but I think working closely with other people has made me more aware of my social quirks and better able to manage collegial behavior. I still have work to do, but field archaeology has certainly helped me become a more collegial person. 

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