Archaeological Field Schools: The (Unofficial!) Rules

DigVentures Aisling

So you’re looking forward to joining an archaeology field school for your first ever dig. Nervous? Excited? Raring to go?

With your shiny new trowel and wheel barrow load of enthusiasm, many a novice digger has show up to their first university field school or community archaeology project with visions of the many treasures they are going to unearth in their short fortnight on site. Whilst that may well happen…. we thought we would add in some of the extra details that aren’t on the site briefing, some of the unwritten rules of an archaeological field school…. (as learned first hand by new graduate Aisling!).

Archaeology Field School Rule  #1.

Firstly... be prepared to not have the foggiest idea what’s going on for at least the first two days. Feature following, soil classifying and context sheet completing can all be a little overwhelming at first. Students standing on trench floors, heads cocked and fingers stroking imaginary beards in puzzlement are not an uncommon sight. So don’t worry if your first few days are spent more ‘hmm-ing’ and ‘ahh-ing’ than discovering new finds that instantly re-write the history books. You’ve seen Time Team: that all happens on day three!

Archaeology Field School Rule  #2.

When you do finally… get round to doing some real digging, approach the context with no fear! You will probably have to ask your supervisor at least three times if your context is all out before you’re even close to fully excavating it. Early excavation usually displays the following pattern: is it done yet, is it done yet, is it done yet, waaahh… I’ve over-excavated! But don’t worry; you’ve got the excuse of being a newbie.

Archaeology Field School Rule  #3.

Don’t expect to… find anything that interesting. The lower your expectations are, the more excited you will be when your star find peeps out through the earth. Just as a watched kettle never boils (especially on cold and rainy tea breaks), neither will an artefact reveal itself to one who is looking for it. They like the element of surprise.

Archaeology Field School Rule  #4.

After all that digging… you’re going to have a fair amount of spoil. Not a problem in the early digging days when a nice stroll to the spoil heap can provide a lovely excuse to have a breather, a stretch and a nosy at what’s occurring in the other trenches. After the first week this will no longer be the case. The spoil heap is not your friend. Running up a ramp of dirt that’s taller than you, whilst pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, will make you want to die a little bit by the last few days.

Archaeology Field School Rule  #5.

Ah mud glorious mud… there’s nothing more satisfying than trudging back to camp at the end of the day smothered in a nice healthy coating of mud. In fact the minerals are apparently good for the complexion. Good job really since as an archaeologist mud is unavoidable. It will get everywhere… and we mean everywhere (under your nails, in your shoes, behind your ears…)

Archaeology Field School Rule  #6.

Last but most certainly not least… field schools are all about furthering your knowledge of archaeological excavation (along with fireside sing songs, playing pranks on your supervisors and frequent pub trips.) If the ‘WHS’ marker carved into your trowel hasn’t worn off by the end of your fortnight you haven’t done enough digging!! Oh well. I guess you’ll have to do a bit more and stay another week, and another week, and another week….

It’s addictive this digging isn’t it?!

Love archaeology?

DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!


Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

Read more from Aisling Serrant +

Get Dig Mail

Keep up with the latest fun, facts & features from the world of archaeology.

Easy opt-out at any time - Privacy Policy

Archaeology / In Your Hands

Courses for anyone who wants to learn more about archaeology, and have fun while they're doing it!

Archaeology Courses

Our fab archaeology merch: dig team tee-shirts, Tatty Devine jewellery range, tote bags, and more!

Archaeology Shop