Learning by Doing: My first field school experience, Part I
Learning by Doing is this month’s theme for Campus Archaeology. While there are many aspects to “learning by doing” in archaeology, our first post focuses on the archaeological field school. Every archaeologist knows that you never truly appreciate the field of archaeology until your first hands-on experience. The archaeological field school will either confirm your aspirations of being an archaeologist, you’ll find that you love the feel of the dirt under your nails and the sweat dripping down your back, or you will sadly discover that six weeks every summer of manual labor is for the birds. Learning by doing helps solidify the true nature of archaeology. We asked our CAP Fellows to tell us about their first field school experience and what was it about the learning by doing that made them passionate about archaeology.
I have been involved with the Central Belize Archaeological Survey Project since 2010. Each year I find myself “learning by doing” or perhaps more appropriately, “learning by utterly failing, then trying to do better.” The CBAS identifies sites to excavate, conducts reconnaissance to find caves and rockshelter, and generally surveys the rainforest to locate sites of importance during the Maya prehistory.
One of our project members is particularly interested in use of peripheral rockshelters, so one day we got a small group together along with a local guide who was well-versed in hunting the area. Feeling pretty confident that with our GPS tools and an experienced local we cold find multiple rockshelters that day, we left for the 2+ hour hike. Morale was high as we navigated our way around a massive pool of water too deep to wade through by scrambling up some rock faces. Everyone was getting abused by the jungle: cuts, scrapes, bugs, falls, turned ankles. Still, we found the rockshelter after cutting several trails, trying to communicate with the local guide, and fighting with the GPS to make sense. As soon as we made out way to the rockshelter, the sky opened up and a torrential rain began, essentially washing away any energy we had left.
After harnessing the little energy we had left, the rockshelter was surveyed and we decided on three areas to put in 1 x 1 meters units. Attitudes started to become more positive – yes, the hike was tortuous and we got lost, but surely these units will yield some material cultural and insight into how this space was used in the past! Ummm…no. If memory serves, we found a very small amount of undecorated tiny pieces of ceramics.
This is my “learning by doing” moment because I realized how to manage my expectations. Not every hike will terminate in a fantastic site. Recon work is difficult, tedious, and sometimes a complete bust. My expectations were unrealistically high for a tropical environment that is unforgiving in both preservation of material culture and traversing terrain. As we returned, exhausted and with out collective tails between out legs, I saw a very teachable moment (both to students and myself): learning by doing is essential, trying and failing is inevitable, reassessing and doing again is necessary.
My first field school experience was at the Henry Lloyd Wright Manor in Long Island, NY. The Manor was significant because it was the home site for Jupiter Hammon of the 17th century, one of the earliest African published writers in the country. The field school was run by Christopher Matthews of Houfstra University. It was an amazing experience because I had just learned that you can find out about African American culture of the past through things you find in the ground and just introduced to greats like Singleton, Ferguson, and Thompson. I was super excited and had so many ideas. I worked closely with the lead graduate student as we explored the grounds for “evidence of African descendant occupation.” The graduate student and I wound up in the attic looking for evidence of the 17th Century life. We noticed these markings on the boards that we absolutely knew were cosmograms and messages used by African people to communicate with their ancestors. We were so excited about our find that we went searching for Chris and anyone else who would be interested. After a thorough investigation, we learned that they were just markings for construction and renovations purposes. The experience definitely put archaeological evidence and context into perspective!
During the time that I attended Marquette University, its archaeology program was partnered with a local CRM firm for the fieldwork project, so my first fieldwork experience was on a mitigation site. As is common knowledge, what projects a CRM firm finds themselves involved with at any given point depends on project availability and numerous other factors, so the archaeological site my field school took place at was a sort of “luck of the draw” situation. We learned the basics of our trade on a very small (about 10m x 10m) plot on the grounds of an industrial park that was slated to expand its facilities (hence the mitigation) in southeastern Wisconsin. Over the course of the four weeks of training, we learned about troweling techniques, profiling, Munsell colors, record keeping, and all the other vital practices that are the foundation of the responsible fieldwork, from two very attentive and detail-oriented instructors. We also learned – the hard way – another invaluable lesson inherent to the nature of archaeology:
Sometimes you don’t find anything!
The entire four weeks’ worth of excavations yielded three tiny lithic flakes. Three! And I wasn’t one of the lucky students to find any of the three. So, ok, we found something, but there was nary a feature in sight, and very little even in the way of stratigraphic differentiation. We had very little to go on for material that would aid us in the actual interpretation of the site (would you even call that a site?). Our instructors ended up creating a faux feature in a wheelbarrow, towards the end of the field school so that we could have some hands-on experience bisecting one. I’m happy to say that every site I’ve worked on since has been much more prolific and that, if anything, my “learning by doing” process in graduate school has become one of working with more material than I know what to do with, instead of the opposite. That’s no less challenging in its own way, but it’s a problem I’ll take any day!
Attending a field school offers valuable experience in archaeological technique and theory. I decided to attend a field school after my college graduation in order to gain more experience before graduate school. At the time I was employed with an archaeology firm, but wanted the opportunity to travel and gain experience in archaeology outside of a Midwest perspective.
The field school I attended was located in Spain and was an excavation of a Roman necropolis with stone laid tomb burials. Working in a different environment than I was used to called for adjustments in my usual archaeological excavation techniques. For example, instead of shovel, pickaxes were required to move through the rock-like soil, and preservation of bone was minimal. These differences gave me an opportunity to learn alternative techniques in excavation, recovery, and analysis through hands-on experience. And, although challenging at the time, overall it was a rewarding experience.
Stay tuned for part II!