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By Elizabeth Lunday

FPAN’s Sara Ayers-Rigsby, teaches students to use a terrestrial laser scanner at the 2024 Jupiter Inlet field school.
Photo credit: Nicole Grinnan / Florida Public Archaeology Network

Archaeologists have widely varying specialties and interests, but most share one critical experience: field school. “It’s such an intense experience,” said archaeologist Laura Heath-Stout of Stanford Archaeology Center. “You’re doing manual labor in a climate you’re not used to, somewhere you don’t know, with a group of people who were not selected for compatibility. And you’re working and socializing together for weeks or months at a time.” The purpose of field school is to teach the fundamental skills of the discipline, including how to excavate a site and use tools and technology. This knowledge is considered so essential that completion of field school is required, either formally or as a de facto obligation, for both cultural resource management jobs and admission to graduate programs. 

For many archaeologists, field schools are transformative experiences. Heath-Stout conducted interviews with 72 archaeologists, and many described field school as the moment they became hooked on the profession. “I always asked my sources how they got into archaeology in the first place, and field schools were a big part of their stories,” said Heath-Stout. But field school isn’t easy, either physically or emotionally. Taxing work is conducted outdoors, often in remote and rugged locations. Students work long hours and often end up sunburned, sweaty, bug-bitten, and dirty. Add to that the tension of living and working with the same group of people 24/7, and you’ve got an inherently stressful situation. “It’s hard to get away from people you’re not compatible with,” Heath-Stout said. “It becomes this pressure cooker for interpersonal tension.” At the least this can result in lots of jokes that may or may not be funny; at the worst it can lead to bullying, sexual harassment, and even assault. The consequences can be devastating. Some students—it’s impossible to say how many—walk away from archaeology after a negative field school experience. 

Students attend the 2024 Spring Bootcamp for the Jupiter Inlet field school. Photo credit: Nicole Grinnan / Florida Public Archaeology Network

The good news is that awareness of the problem is growing along with demands for increased accountability, according to Emory University’s Associate Director of Research and Scholarship Carol Colaninno. In studying how field schools can be operated safely, Colaninno found that change starts at the top. Field school directors must foster a culture of respectful behavior in which even seemingly casual jokes and put-downs are unacceptable, she said. “When we think of sexual harassment, we automatically think of more egregious forms of behavior, but tiny incidents can go on to have a big impact if they aren’t checked,” said Colaninno. The goal is to create a culture in which students know that “any attitudes or jokes that would make people feel lesser are not tolerated here.” 

This is an excerpt of the article Transformation in the Field in American Archaeology, Summer 2024 | Vol. 28 No. 2. Subscribe to read the full text.