Mixed Feelings About My First Fieldwork Project

It took 9½ years from the day that I started the PhD programme at Uni Stockholm until the day that I graduated. It was supposed to take 4 years. There were many reasons that it took so long: I had two kids and took some parental leave, I worked 20% as a journal editor for half of the period, I worked one season in contract archaeology, I co-wrote one book and edited another that were not part of the thesis, I wrote lots of journal notes, papers and reviews. But perhaps the overarching reason that encompasses most of this was that I was not given, and indeed fended off, any strong goal-oriented supervision. Nobody knew from one week to another what I was doing or whether it would contribute to getting my thesis finished.

One thing I learned the hard way during grad school, and which I always tell PhD students, is this. Never collect any data of your own. Use under-utilised published or archival data. Leave that kind of work until after you’ve received your doctorate. And above all, do not excavate.

I excavated for two seasons, the first fieldwork I directed myself. Lately I’ve been going back to my archival reports in order to scan them and put them in the online repository of my work that the National Heritage Board’s archivists have created. And I find myself shaking my head in admiration, sadness and sheer disbelief at what this headstrong, independent, dissident, isolated 25-year-old was doing. My fieldwork of 1996-97 was nothing short of Quixotic. (When I say “we” in the following, I mean that this is how I directed my team of students and friends to work. Nobody else was responsible.)

  • Over-documentation: we levelled innumerable points on the ground surface and on stones in these structures. We planned every stone by hand, using folding rule, pencil and grid film. We hatched sandstone on the plans.
  • Under-documentation: we didn’t bring a step ladder or vertical photo tripod, so we couldn’t take any vertical photographs. This would have been much faster and more precise than planning on grid film, and given us much higher resolution. But it would also have introduced a wait, because we had only chemical cameras and the nearest photo lab was far away.
  • Methodological strength & weakness: as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we paid really focused attention to documenting the stratigraphical sequence. But again as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we left no standing section and so could neither draw nor photograph the section. This made it impossible for us determine whether a looting pit in one grave had reached into the top of the burial deposit or not.
  • Semi-pointlessness: neither of the two graves produced any interesting artefact finds. The documentation we created with such care is only useful to someone who studies minute structural details of 1st Millennium burial monuments on Gotland. Over the quarter century since 1997, to my knowledge that has amounted to no-one whatsoever, not even me.
  • Main value: within the local context of my project, we met our stated goal in that both graves yielded enough information to date them both pretty tightly. However, no scholar except me has ever had that locally focused interest in the Barshalder cemetery’s spatial development.

I’m looking at the documentation we made in those two summers, not only of the graves we excavated, but also of test pits, metal detector work and local landowners’ collections of finds. And I see a young fellow who absolutely loves this site, this material, who wants to do right by it, who is enormously ambitious and conscientious but also over-idealistic and unrealistic about what it is all for. He is purposefully, consciously and proudly writing himself into the ATA archive folders, full of material from preceding generations of field archaeologists at Barshalder, that he has just spent two years processing. He is working really hard to avoid the mistakes of some previous excavators who left their careless documentation in such a mess. But he doesn’t seem to realise that though painstaking and time-consuming in its methodology, his documentation has way lower resolution and precision than the vertical photography work that was the standard on Erik Nylén’s Gotland before he was even born.

Ultimately, too, the grave excavations of 1997 were a gamble that didn’t pay off. Since neither of the excavated graves happened to contain anything interesting, all that fieldwork and post-ex work amounted only to a few lines of text in my PhD thesis, and to a footnote in the immensely rich record of burial archaeology on Gotland. It would have been much better for the project not to dig. Like most of my thesis work, it didn’t have a strong rational justification pointing towards a timely viva and a subsequent career. I was simply extremely keen emotionally to excavate at Barshalder and become part of the site’s history, not just to collect and assemble other people’s documentation. I wanted to establish myself as a producer of canonical fieldwork discoveries, not just an analyst or commentator. This I eventually succeeded in doing eight years later, when Howard Williams and I directed the boat-burial dig that carried us into the pages of Medieval Archaeology.


Author: Martin R

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

One thought on “Mixed Feelings About My First Fieldwork Project”

  1. An investment in hands-on experience. History of science is full of dead ends that contributed to later success.
    And DNA was not a *triple* helix, as some had assumed.


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