Carver On Education In Archaeology

Martin Carver in the editorial to the current issue of Antiquity:

If the PhD is an apprenticeship, why does it include no formal training in fieldwork—our method of recovering primary data? Quite apart from the fact that the world is already full of academics who don’t know how to dig (but think they do), not every doctoral student is destined for a job in a university. The commercial sector, as archaeology’s largest employer, needs their talents too—but it would help if they were trained. Six months in the field, out of 36 months in a library, strikes me as a minimum (leaving 30 months to write four articles).

Meanwhile what of the students who are not doing PhDs, but want to be archaeologists;
do they fare any better? No they don’t. It has become ever more difficult for promising young people to gain access to the profession. The old way was simple enough: you volunteered and received training in exchange for your labour. Now you pay to be trained or indeed, in some reprehensible cases, pay not to be trained. So what are you paying for?: to buy an experience without making any commitment to it, known in other walks of life as prostitution.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

14 thoughts on “Carver On Education In Archaeology”

  1. Years ago, I volunteering to help on an archaeological dig; my purpose was to learn about archaeology, since that discipline is a major source of information in my area of interest. I learned A. archaeology is damned hard work (but it’s better than joining a gym), & B. mistakes can be easily made. B is significant.


  2. I’m not sure that I entirely agree that all PhDs should involve fieldwork. I think it depends on the topic being studied. If you’re basing it on a particular site or cluster of sites, then I would agree that there is no substitute for getting out there, seeing it for yourself and getting your hands dirty.

    However, speaking as an animal bones specialist, my getting my hands dirty came in the form of hours and hours in the lab with said animal bones. This was more productive to me than spending months out in the field.


  3. Wow,

    at my university in Germany six months of fieldwork are required to complete the MA! And fieldschools are usually free while “real” archaeological work is paid. I guess I didn’t realize just how good we have it here….


  4. Archaeozoo, it’s possible to do good bone work in the lab without digging much. But I have worked with osteologists in the field on inhumations and I really prefer to have you guys on site.


  5. Oh, I would agree that with inhumations, having specialists on site is a major plus. It stops the avoidable mistakes. And I don’t have a problem with specialists digging generally either, just to clarify. I have dug myself, in fact I worked for a unit for a number of years. I just don’t think digging should be compulsory for a PhD. I do think it perhaps should be for a BSc/BA though.


  6. I guess the question whether an osteology PhD should contain digging depends on whether osteology is a kind of archaeology or not. All archaeologists should in my opinion be able to dig well.


  7. I would personally say osteology, both animal and human, was a form of archaeology, but that is probably because I started off as an archaeologist and then went into bones. It is one of those weird areas that overlaps with other disciplines – archaeology seems to have a lot of those – and there are osteologists who start off from a biological/medical/veterinary background who get interested in the archaeological aspect. How much experience the latter have with digging is open to debate.


  8. I appreciate an osteologist who understands find contexts, excavation methodology and the taphonomical quirks of bones that have gone through the grubby paws of a field archaeologist.


  9. In “Bones” they have those nifty 3D thingmajigs to virtually reconstruct the dead, but in the real world there is no shortcut to getting one’s hands dirty in order to understand context. Also, if you are on the field you must get a better feeling for the “messiness” and possible contamination?
    Just guessing, here.


  10. Specialization in any field is inevitable. As a historian (at least in some part), the provenance of a source is part of the initial analysis of it. Considering my interests, I would observe that a competantly excavated site (which is being used in a somewhat generic way here) is far more informative than one that was incompetantly excavated. Not to be critical, but poorly excavated and documented sites exist. Trying to understand what is poorly excavated from what is well excavated is something of a trial. The work becomes harder when you realize your source material was prepared in a mediocre way.


  11. Have been dealing with the frustrating aftermath of a PhD archaeologist who has plenty of ego (& expectations of senior level employment given his education), but absolutely no idea how to conduct fieldwork properly – resulting in a full season of site damage, terrible notes, no survey and almost no photography. I don’t see how someone could complete three degrees in archaeology and not learn how to acquire data properly, not understand the importance of getting this data right, nor the importance of site preservation for future generations! (note: not lumping all PhDs here, which would be ridiculous, just noting a problem which I hope isn’t getting worse)


    1. In Sweden, archaeology PhDs are a dime a dozen and they are crowding MAs out of the contract archaeology labour market. So they’d better learn to dig. Not all do.


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