10 Commandments of Archaeology

Love ’em or hate ’em, lists are a big thing on the Internet by now. Hopefully readers won’t find this one to be as mindless as the listicles constantly spamming up Facebook. Anyway, you’ll notice this isn’t THE ten commandments, it’s just ten of ’em. Ten useful things that have worked to make field projects in both academia and CRM run smoothly.


1.  Chill out.
This should be pretty obvious, but it’s always surprising how wound up some folks get when they’re on the road, away from home, outside their comfort zone, or out in the field. Newbies are especially prone to field anxiety, but even some veterans have their road neuroses that went unchecked early on in their careers and, given time to ferment, it’s not a nice brew. Stay frosty like the drinks you’re bound to enjoy at the end of a long day in the field and you’ll get a lot more out of archaeology.

2.  Be flexible.
This is probably the cardinal rule of archaeology. Planning and preparation are as important to fieldwork as the theory and methodology that supports it, but it’s not a perfect world and if you can’t come up with a backup plan or a clever workaround, your fieldwork is gonna get wrecked and you’ll be looking at a lot of wasted opportunities (and money).

3.  Be flexible.
If you’re not in charge of planning and organizing fieldwork, then chances are it looks even more chaotic on your end. Flexibility is key, and you need to be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice and keep your cool about it (lest not we forget rule #1) or you won’t get much enjoyment out of archaeology.

4.  Be flexible.
This gets three spots because psychologists say that’s the magic number in repetition to get through your thick hominid skull. It’s also on here again because it’s hard to be flexible. It’s stressful. Don’t worry, roll with it. Trust your education and your training, do good science, and everything else will come as it may.

5.  Harden up.

no-guts-no-glory-85306213(Because, like good anthropologists, we don’t need to use gendered terms for hard work) It’s not going to be comfortable. The travel, the fieldwork, the hours of digging, the heat, the bugs, the food, the hangovers. Deal with it. You didn’t get into archaeology because it was comfortable, and nothing good in life comes easy. You do a very hard job that taxes your body and your mind. Be proud of that and embrace it. And do the damn work.

6.  Don’t mess up.
This point is tricky because from the get-go you should remember to chill out. Mistakes do happen, that’s true, but you can learn from mistakes, rectify them, and move on. Take your work seriously and be smart about how you go about it. The point of this one is to convey a sense of urgency. If you can’t/won’t rebound from a mistake, remember this: you’re screwing up for your teammates, you’re screwing up for the client/grantor, you’re screwing up for the culture represented by the material you’re studying, you’re screwing up for other researchers who are counting on you to provide good data, and you’re screwing up for the public who might stand to learn something from your work or their heritage to be protected by your work. How many times have you scoffed at the shoddy methodology of the Old Archaeology of the late nineteenth century through the 1960s? You don’t want people to scoff at you like that now, do you?

7.  Don’t be a jerk.
This is a no brainer, but some people seem to struggle with it all the same. If you make life hard on others, life’s gonna be hard for you too. See also rule #1. To expand, Support each other. Have each others’ backs. Being in the field is, by nature, very isolating whether you’re abroad for months, on the road for a few weeks, or just in the woods for a day of work. Protect team morale. Be a good team player and help each other out. This line of work is so much fun when you don’t have to think twice about picking each other apart.

8.  Don’t talk about it.
Also put, “loose lips sink ships”, or “thou shalt not gossip”. Guess what, hot shot? Archaeology is a small world, and your field team is even smaller. If you engage in unnecessary gossip against your team, you’re on the fast track to getting a black mark next to your name and that’s gonna hold you back in the future. This should not, however, be taken to imply one should turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior or harassment. But if you’re just talking smack just to talk smack, that’s also really inappropriate. There’s enough drama in life as it is, don’t go making it up.

9.  Enjoy every sandwich.


It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sandwich, but enjoy your food on the road or in the field. Love your sandwich, taco, gyro, whatever, and you’ll love yourself. A nice, nutritious meal does wonders for your body, your attitude, and your experience as you practice archaeology. As an anthropologist, you all know very well that eating is a social act, and some of the best conversations and group bonding happen around the table. Also – especially in CRM – if you’re on the road, chances are your options for pre-prepared food are limited to chain restaurants and fast food, and an anthropologist with a social conscience should not support food insecurity, hunger, poverty, and the broken system of industrial agrifood. Not to mention, making your own food is the best bang for your buck if you’re working on a per diem allowance.

10. Sempre en frente.
Portuguese for “always forward”, this was the motto of the project I did my grad research with. This nicely sums up the other nine rules, as it takes a fine balance of keeping a cool head, being flexible, working hard, and being part of an effective team to get the job done.


Clearly, this list can be adapted to several other lines of work or other situations, just like we adapted this list from rules for touring bands and rules for competitive road cyclists and a few years of conversations about it in the field. Feel free to comment with your own. Look for another related post in the near future about field methods, which will hopefully spur some productive discussion.

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2 Responses

  1. […] something to amp up your experience. Sometimes you go through some hard times, but you need to Rule #5 it and keep […]

  2. […] or spending hours on the road and months in hotels living out of a duffel bag. If you remember the 10 Commandments (of archaeology, duh), you’ll find strength in rules 2 through 4: “be […]

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