Picking a Field School

As March is coming to an end, you should be getting closer to finalizing your summer plans.

We joined the folks over at the CRM Archaeology Podcast earlier this week in recording a special Field School episode, following blog posts and Twitter discussions with Bill White, Chris Webster, and R. Joe Brandon (from ShovelBums). These are the questions set out by Chris Webster, which we hope to address during the podcast:

Update you can find the episode featuring our commentary on field schools here, but be advised there is some NSFW dialogue.


I got lucky in the way of field schools, in that I never really took an official program. I was invited on an academic dig by one of my professors in my junior year. My college did not have an archaeology field school program, and the professor wanted to bring some students along. It was a two month long trip, where we learned by example of the professors and masters students. I obviously was hooked on archaeology from this experience, but I left with a huge amount of questions that went unanswered until the next summer where I supervised a non-profit high school archaeology program in Belize. Once again, I was surrounded by professionals, and I quickly picked up all of the necessary skills needed to supervise and teach high school students some of the basics. I returned to the same academic dig in Portugal later that summer, and really excelled at all of the things I felt so unconfident about the summer before.

In your undergraduate career I think it is really important to get as much field experience as possible – from different places and different professors – so you know what you like and you get a better grasp of what the profession is all about. It’s also really important (and impressive) if you do something with the data you helped collect in the field: Analyze materials collected in the lab, write a field report in an independent study, and present your findings at a conference! It’s surprisingly easy to get these opportunities if you show interest and ask questions from the professors who are running the field school. Chances are they would love some help analyzing all the data they collect, and that gives you face time, and a good reference when you graduate.

One more thing – don’t put yourself into debt by going to a big, fancy field school. There are a ton of travel abroad scholarships if you don’t have the funding to get there, or just choose one close to home. No field school will get you a high paying job, so be realistic with your financial situation before jetting off to the Mediterranean for 8 weeks!


My experience differs somewhat from Andee’s. My undergrad program required field school credits in order to complete a degree in archaeology. I explained how my fieldschool experience was a crucial part of my path to an early career in CRM in our previous blog post, so I won’t labor the point too much here. Can you get by without field school? Maybe. Are you willing to gamble on that clipping your wings and closing off opportunities? In the end, you need to be asking yourself how to be more competitive and open up potentials. I’ve seen plenty of field techs in CRM who come in really green and struggle to keep up (physically and technically) because they’ve never stepped foot in the field. Even though I try to approach that kind of situation as a “teachable moment” and train a newbie tech the way I’d like them to know and perform archaeology, I worry that they will still lag behind since they’re picking up the fundamentals so late in the game. Also, and not to toot my own horn, but not all field directors will take the time and effort to train someone from the ground-up (pun intended). Back to the issue of field school, though, let’s say we’re on the same page and agree that field school is something you need to do as an undergrad. Even though my field school was specifically geared toward Maya archaeology, there were a lot of things that I’ve taken from it even though I’m not a practicing Mayanist.

Here’s what my field school did particularly well:

Picking a Field School

Why do you need field school? Skills. What you need to look for in a field school is a chance to get some well rounded practice in the whole approach to an archaeological project. By that, we mean that you should ideally be able to do some survey and see how sites are first identified in the field. You also want some excavation experience, so you can get the bigger picture of a site and see the next step after a site is identified on survey. And of course you need some lab experience, because all that digging is just digging unless you know how to process artifacts for lab analysis. Along the way, you’ll hear survey, excavation, and lab supervisors talk about what it all means for reports and papers. That’s the whole enchilada – being able to turn fieldwork and research into a finished product – and that’s the most crucial skill you can take away from your summer and apply to a job in any field.

Choosing the right field school can be a challenge in itself. If you have an adviser who’s an archaeologist, they’re likely the best resource for advice and connections. Your adviser may run a field school or have summer field work you can join, and the face time you’ll gain there will beat any office visit. If your undergrad program doesn’t offer any field work, you can check out the field school listings on ShovelBums or on the American Anthropological Association.

Where should you go? Well, if you know what you hope to study in grad school or have a good idea of where you want to work, then pick a field school in that region. If you’re eyeballing a certain professor as your future grad school adviser, jump on their project to really get your foot in the door. Don’t know what you want to study, or where you want to work? That’s ok. It really doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you can find a way to transfer skills over to what you do later on. Plenty of archaeologists work all over the place before committing to a long-term research project. One important thing to think about when picking your field school, is academic credit. Even if your undergrad program doesn’t require field school credits, you can most likely find a way to make it count as an independent study. Talk to your adviser or department chair about making that happen. Make sure the field school is accredited by a university so the credits will transfer, if it’s hosted by a different university.

At the bare minimum, you’ll have a really fun time traveling, getting hands-on archaeological experience, and appreciating other cultures (past and present). If you go the extra mile, field school can be a powerful starting point that’ll launch the rest of your career in archaeology.


Reading List:

Chris Webster “Choosing a Field School”, on Random Acts of Science

Bill White “What do you think should be included in an archaeological field school?”, on Succinct Research

R. Joe Brandon “Field Schools 2015”, on ShovelBums

Chris’ undergrad field school: Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) Project

Chris and Andee’s non-profit field school for high school students: American Foreign Academic Research (AFAR) Program

ArchaeologyUndergrad Guides


2 Responses

  1. Christopher says:

    Yep, go for it. Thanks!

  2. […] if you even like being in the field. Keep an eye out for an upcoming article on the blog on Picking a Field School. You need to be lining up your summer fieldwork plans by […]

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