How to have a field day in an imperfect setting

Archaeologist's Toolkit
May 21, 2004

A century ago, a prospective archaeologist learnt excavation by simply doing it. Leonard Woolley of Ur-of-the-Chaldees fame cut his archaeological teeth on a dig near Hadrian's wall, then worked on cemeteries in the Sudan, where he learnt "how to handle natives". Today's fledgling excavator serves a long apprenticeship of courses, field schools and practical work - and reads books on the subject. Most such volumes are comprehensive texts, adorned with photographs of exemplary excavations (the edges are always straight) and three-dimensional diagrams of ancient buildings that dazzle the reader with their perfection. There is nothing wrong with learning about archaeological nirvana, provided it is dosed with a diet of the kind of sound ethics and pragmatic experience that Archaeologist's Toolkit sets out to provide.

Editors Larry Zimmerman and William Green assembled 11 authors (and themselves) to write a seven-volume "toolkit" for university students and budding professionals on the process of archaeological research - from excavation to publication. Each book is about 150 pages long, with drawings, photographs and useful resources. Each stands alone, but they can be purchased in different combinations depending on the type of course offered by the instructor.

As a package, the series offers an integrated look at the basics of fieldwork and analysis, curation, "presenting the past" and a brief excursion through ethics and public archaeology. The volumes are cumulative, in the sense that they take the student through the process of fieldwork from initial design to presenting the results to various audiences. As such, they present a consistent conservation ethic, combined with a realistic appraisal of the legal and practical environment of academic archaeology and what is loosely called cultural (or heritage) resource management (CRM).

Volume one, Archaeology by Design , covers the process of developing archaeological research in both academic and CRM contexts. This highlights the dramatic differences between the two forms of excavation and survey in specific terms. The emphasis is on the CRM world, for this is where most readers will find research opportunities. Authors Stephen Black and Kevin Jolly stress the importance of the different parts of what they call the "professional toolkit". They follow the process of design from conception to implementation, with a clarity that is not obfuscated by theoretical jargon. This is very much a volume with practical objectives in mind, thereby setting the tone for the entire Toolkit .

Long-term fieldworkers James Collins and Brian Molyneaux contribute the second volume, Archaeological Survey . As they note, most basic textbooks devote little space to survey, which is a mistake, since it is the dominant form of archaeological fieldwork in an era when excavation is avoided where possible. The coverage begins with "the law, the process and the players", then discusses remote-sensing techniques, as well as conventional survey methods. There is advice on practical matters such as locating surface sites, sampling strategies and map reading, as well as a chapter on report writing.

Volume three covers both familiar and unfamiliar ground: the notion that all excavation is destruction, site testing and data recovery. But it also discusses the conservation ethic, mechanical excavation techniques, and such arcane topics as obsidian hydration and soil sample collection. There is a strong undercurrent of ethics throughout, ranging from appropriate consultation with stakeholders in the past to reburial and repatriation.

Excavation is inevitably short on examples, but it is a realistic appraisal of the most fundamental archaeological activity.

Charles Ewen takes us from the field into the laboratory in Artifacts . His admirable essay exposes us not to step-by-step methods but to different ways of studying artefacts, always as part of a research design. He covers the entire spectrum, from the differences between artefacts and ecofacts to their recovery and cleaning, from classification and data manipulation to digital imaging. As he points out, there is no right way to analyse artefacts, but everyone should clearly understand the goals of such research in an era when future research will involve ever more study of museum collections.

Archaeobiology covers the study of biological remains from archaeological sites. Kristin Sobolik emphasises how CRM has brought such research into the mainstream. She provides a breathtakingly rapid survey of such diverse issues as taphonomy, recovery methods and lab techniques. Case studies expand on such topics as flotation of botanical remains and the study of western prairie bison hunters. These enrich the text with detail. The emphasis is on basic procedures and the potential of the subject, an appropriate perspective to acquire before plunging into specialised minutiae.

Archaeologists have long thought of curation as something that comes after fieldwork. In volume six, Curating Archaeological Collections , Lynne Sullivan and Terry Childs stress that the process begins in the field and continues in perpetuity. They cover repositories, legislation covering collections and the curation crisis. The authors discuss the basics of conservation and storage, and the complex issues of long-term curation.

What ultimately matters is what data on the past our descendants will inherit and their ability to refine our findings.

In the final volume, Presenting the Past , Zimmerman discusses the accountability of archaeological research: putting it on record for clients, specialist audiences and the general public. He covers every aspect of this complex subject, including audience levels, writing skills, the complexity of archaeological images and the iniquitous world of "publish or perish". He also ventures into the ever-changing thickets of communicating with the media, of games and toys, and the web. This admirable survey rightly considers publication part of the archaeologist's ethical obligations, an integral part of our role as stewards of the past for the future.

Archaeologist's Toolkit makes no claims to be comprehensive, but it does what it sets out to do: to provide beginners and more experienced archaeologists with a series of ethics-based statements about the process of archaeological research. Each volume is authoritative, clearly written and crammed with useful resources and advice. The orientation is North American, but there is much here of inestimable value to anyone who teaches and practises archaeology. The Toolkit offers a flexibility and an ethics-driven perspective that makes it ideal for field schools and all manner of more specialised courses. No glossy illustrations or idealised research here; these are hard-nosed literary artefacts, designed for use in the field and laboratory. A lot of busy researchers and teachers will find this series invaluable.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US.


Volume One: Archaeology By Design , by Stephen L. Black and Kevin Jolly, 157pp, ISBN 0 7591 0397 6 and 0020 9

Volume Two: Archaeological Survey , by James L. Collins and Brian Leigh Molyneaux, 148pp, ISBN 0 7591 0398 4 and 0021 7

Volume Three: Excavation , by David L. Carmichael and Brian Leigh Molyneaux,126pp, ISBN 0 7591 0399 2 and 0019 5

Volume Four: Artifacts , by Charles R. Ewen, 149pp, ISBN 0 7591 0400 X and 0022 5

Volume Five: Archaeobiology , by Kristin D. Sobolik,139pp, ISBN 0 7591 0401 8 and 0023 3 £50.00

Volume Six: C urating Archaeological Collections : From the Field to the Repository, by Lynne P. Sullivan and S. Terry Childs, 150pp, ISBN 0 7591 0402 6 and 0024 1

Volume Seven: Presenting the Past , by Larry J. Zimmerman, 162pp,  ISBN 0 7591 0403 4 and 0025 X

All volumes priced £50.00 and £17.95.

Archaeologist's Toolkit: Volumes One to Seven

Editor - Larry J. Zimmerman and William Green
Publisher - AltaMira Press
Price - £94.95 (boxed set)
ISBN - 0 7591 0017 9 (paperback only)

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