Archaeological Field School: a vital step to a career in archaeology

By Todd Ahlman

Students and locals during the previous St. Kitt’s Island Field School

The topic of this week’s PAST Posts seems like a no-brainer, but more and more I see and hear from my colleagues that students are not taking archaeological field schools and are finishing their undergraduate and graduate studies without the essential training necessary for an archaeological career. In this post I will talk about my field school experiences and wrap up with a discussion of what experiences people should look for when taking a field school.

As a freshman I saw a flyer advertising an archaeological field school and quickly signed up. I did not know what to expect or even what I should be expecting, all I knew was I was actually going to get to do archaeology. For 10 weeks that summer I was part of a team battling heat, bugs, storms, flash floods, and sunburns while exploring a Plains Woodland Village in central Nebraska. With no expectations, I was just happy to be there and dig square holes. In retrospect I learned a lot more than just how to dig a one meter square in 10 centimeter levels. I learned how to be part of team and that team members might be called upon to do a lot of tasks that don’t have a lot to do with digging, such as fixing the water pumps, digging latrine holes, cooking, and cleaning. At age 18 I don’t think those things really struck me, but 25+ years later I see how vital they are to any archaeological project.

My field school experience opened up a world of opportunities. The next summer I got my first paying job in Arizona and the following school year I helped the professor who led the field school with some lithic analysis. I have earned paid positions in the field of archaeology ever since, and without that field school experience, I do not think I would have had the opportunities that I had so early in my career.

Students screening during the previous St. Kitt's Island field school
Students screening during the previous St. Kitt’s Island field school

I have taken part in numerous other field schools as a graduate assistant and instructor over the years and in those classes there were students who planned to be archaeologists, physical and forensic anthropologists, and cultural anthropologists all trying to gain practical experience. For the archaeological students, this training is vital for their careers as most post-baccalaureate jobs in archaeology require a field school to qualify for field jobs. Many private firms and federal or state agencies will not hire applicants who have not successfully completed an archaeological field school. As Dr. Hamilton stated in her PAST Posts blog entry, her archaeological training and experience have been vital parts of her forensic anthropological career. Many physical and forensic anthropologists have strong archaeological backgrounds. For cultural anthropology students, archaeological training offers practical experience and opens up additional employment avenues, but it also provides students with opportunities to experience different cultures, especially if the program is abroad.

The importance of an archaeological field school is clear for anyone who plans to be an archaeologist, and as students look for archaeological field schools here are some suggestions to keep in mind while choosing one:

First, does the project offer a variety of training opportunities? Does the project offer opportunities to learn survey and excavation techniques? Will laboratory techniques be taught? Will the project investigate a variety of site types? Will you have the opportunity to interact with the public and practice sharing the information gained through archaeology?

Students working on a hillside site during the previous St. Kitt's Island field school
Students working on a hillside site during the previous St. Kitt’s Island field school

Second, will you have the opportunity to learn how to use a variety of different technologies? The field of archaeology is quickly becoming “high tech” with the use of integrated tablets, GPS units, and paperless recording, so learning those skills is important. At the same time, it is also important that you will learn more “old school” methods of recordation including learning how to use a compass, paper maps, and navigation without a GPS.

And finally, does the project allow you to make life-long friends and colleagues? Most do, but it is up to you to prioritize developing these friendships during your field school and to start networking with professors and colleagues. I still maintain contact with the professors who taught my field school and I’m still friends with several of the other students these 27 years later. The right field school really can foster one’s love of archaeology and provide a solid foundation for a great career.

Dr. Todd Ahlman is the Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies. He has worked in the cultural resources field for more than 25 years. For more information about his upcoming field school on St. Kitts Island, please see our website.