Field training

Armchair archaeology is chose du passé… Nobody will get a degree in archaeology (ancient Egyptian or other) without having fieldwork experience. Academic knowledge acquired from books will only get you so far… the rest is hands-on experience and fieldwork.

Archaeological field school is most certainly the best way to learn excavation techniques. Universities that offer undergraduate programs in archaeology generally have field school as one of their courses. Students enrolling in this course will participate in archaeological excavations during the summer, will write a report and get credits.

Field school is generally a combination of lectures and practical lessons in the field. Stratigraphy and many other archaeological theories, concepts or techniques can be taught in a classroom, but they will be better understood when actually demonstrated on site. Senior archaeologists and supervisors will show you how to handle a trowel properly so you don’t cause serious damage to your wrist (a medical condition called “carpal tunnel syndrome”, which archaeology students jokingly refer to as “carpal trowel syndrome”), to set up excavation units, how to distinguish different loci, how to write up context sheets and keep records filled with important archaeological information, create lists of finds, take different samples (soil, clay, carbon, etc…), wash pottery, and sort out the sherds, and so on… Remember that different people have different methods, some of which are actually suited to particular types of excavations. You will become aware of these different methods by participating in different field schools with different professors. Needless to say, there are no “right” or “wrong” methods, simply different ones.

Once you have mastered the basic excavation techniques (and the next time you go on a dig), you might want to learn how to shoot levels with a transit, make baulk drawings and plans, photograph artefacts or archaeological units, draw artefacts and pottery sherds or use Global Positioning System (GPS) tools. You don’t have to know how to do all these things, you can chose the activities you enjoy most or the ones at which you are best. Personally, I really enjoy drawing (and it happens that I have an art degree) and, most of the time, I am the person who draws the artefacts and some architectural features on the dig. I spend my time making drawings when I am not on all fours excavating or supervising teams.

As a general rule, field school is expensive, particularly when you have to travel abroad. Excavation techniques are adapted to the immediate physical environment of the archaeological site (digging Nubian desert sand and digging in the wet, heavy soil across Canada require different techniques), yet the basics of archaeological investigation are the same. So, even though you might be interested in Egyptology or Nubian studies, you can enroll in field school in your own country. There are plenty of archaeological sites (native, colonial or arctic archaeology) being explored across Canada, from Nova Scotia to the North-West Territories… and many archaeologists who have specialised in foreign cultures have actually started working at home first. (You can also work in a different country altogether if that opportunity arises. That was the case for me: my first dig experience was in Jordan.)

Sometimes, new archaeological skills need not be acquired in the field. Indeed, there is plenty of practical, hands-on skills you can learn in a museum or an archaeology lab. Many professors hold special sessions during lunch hours or when they are not busy teaching. That is how I learned to draw pottery sherds: a professor and his lab assistants held a pottery drawing session one afternoon. A bunch of us signed up and were shown different methods of drawing pottery and then we practiced for a few hours. Now that I know how to draw pottery, I can do it while in the field or back at the museum. It is a very useful skill to have… and took just a few hours of my time to learn.

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