Josh Emmitt sparked an interesting conversation on Twitter about the requiredness of physically strenuous fieldwork in archaeology. Are there jobs in archaeology that are “non-fieldwork/non-super physical”, he asks? Some wonder whether people who do no fieldwork are even real archaeologists.

The discussion, beyond giving a number of great example of archaeological roles that do not involve fieldwork, put the spotlight on equity, diversity, and inclusiveness in our field. Not everyone can participate in archaeological fieldwork, especially of the physically strenuous kind. This has tended to reduce the diversity of people who engage with the discipline. So just how essential is fieldwork to the archaeologist?

Equity, diversity, fieldwork, and the archaeological identity

One of my old mentors used to say, less than half jokingly, perhaps even a third jokingly, that we should have a 20 year moratorium on archaeological fieldwork, just so we can go through the stuff we already have, and make a bit of sense out of it. He insisted that we did much too much fieldwork, and that we should spend more of our energy analyzing and interpreting the available material.

Another one of my mentors once asked me why, as a modeler, I wanted to do any fieldwork at all? Betraying both his age and his intellectual tradition, he asked: Wouldn’t it be good if some archaeologists did something else than fieldwork for a change? Another professor, overhearing this interaction, pulled me into his office and told me to ignore that advice. Even if you are recognized as a theoretician or a modeler, he said, there is always someone influential on the search committee who wants to see your dirt archaeology credentials (he, of course, being one of them). He was right. I had been doing plenty of fieldwork, and I assured him that I would continue. I wanted to. But I wanted to do other things as well.

The perception that “real” archaeologists do fieldwork, and the more difficult and physically challenging the better, has certainly impacted equity, diversity and inclusiveness in our field. The reality that there is a prestige hierarchy of fieldwork achievement has also hurt. This needs fixing. Diversity of abilities, backgrounds, experiences, and consequently of contributions, can only help our discipline.

Fieldwork was not always central

There was a time, especially in the French and continental European traditions, when the archaeologist was a humble technical specialist who performed excavation. More highly regarded, the prehistorian pulled together excavation and other data, produced interpretations and comparisons, and thought about how we became us. This was mirrored by the distinction between the ethnographer, who observed and recorded, and the anthropologist, who interpreted and theorized on the human condition.

After the Second World War, especially with the rise of settlement archaeology and of hypothesis driven excavation in the New Archaeology, personal knowledge of find contexts and excavations was more highly valued than in-depth knowledge of the finds themselves. The distinction between the heady theoretician and the hard-living adventurer rapidly broke down.

Fieldwork in remote and difficult places became a rite of passage, as the way to produce new data for interpretation. In the process, the fieldworkers cornered the disciplinary prestige market and successfully claimed the fairly exclusive right to interpret the past. They also captured the bulk of the academic jobs.

This shift tended to exclude many classes of people from archaeology. Into the 1990s, I heard supervisors claim, for example, that the field camp was no place for a young woman. People with limited mobility, or with health concerns, of course, could often not participate, because they couldn’t fulfill the all-important requirement of a stint in physically challenging fieldwork conditions. Far from being accessible, fieldwork projects with the highest prestige constantly emphasize inaccessibility: of region and of environmental conditions. They train an elite brotherhood in hardship, whose experience justifies their dominant role in the discipline.

Some archaeologists, aware of this hierarchy, do just enough fieldwork, rated as just challenging enough, to pass. Some colleagues have confessed to me, in hushed tones and after a couple of sad pints, that they hate fieldwork. The more basic the conditions, the more they hate it. Some, after checking the box and earning the badge, quickly transition to lab work, or theory, or other activities that contribute to archaeology. They fondly recall their challenging fieldwork experiences in departmental seminars.

I’ve heard other colleagues counter that “any fool can suffer”, and that hardship is not a marker of achievement. My own philosophy of fieldwork has always been that good logistics makes better fieldwork. In retrospect, it also makes it more accessible.


In fact, there are plenty of valuable roles in archaeology that don’t require fieldwork. Traditionally, lab-based analysis of lithics, bone, ceramic, and environmental samples have made essential contributions. We can now add to that work on ancient DNA, bone isotopes, and geophysical data, among others. Some of the people who do our radiometric dating might have something to say about this as well.

Those professionals, however, are often portrayed as support staff, rather than as integral participants in the interpretation of the past. Other practitioners, such as science communicators and museum professionals, are sometimes not considered part of archaeology at all, although they clearly make crucial contributions.

Then there is the odd modeler. Sometimes very odd. Part of the skepticism of the pure modeler in archaeology has centered around whether they really know and understand “the material”. How can they really know and understand it, if they haven’t dug it up themselves? The same doubts beset the real archaeologist about the qualifications of those museum and public outreach people. Not to mention the odious policy makers and assorted government interlopers.

A variety of experiences inform my interpretation of the archaeological record, whether in the details of a single layer in a single site, or in all its global longue durée glory: Parenting, observing people agonize over a menu choice at a restaurant, walking along a river in the summer, reading Anna Comnena, putting some rocks into an SEM, and yes, even digging up 5000 year old garbage in an oily boreal forest midden.

I don’t feel I would be less of an archaeologist if I didn’t have that last one under my belt. I would certainly be a different archaeologist, and that’s not a bad thing. Obviously, we need people to dig stuff up. I am glad I have the opportunity to do that once in a while. Obviously, we want the diggers to participate in the interpretation of the archaeological record. That is very different from saying they own the exclusive right to interpret it, and that they have the only claim to the name archaeologist. All kinds of people think about the past for all kinds of reasons, and use all kinds of strategies for understanding it. I welcome all of their diverse contributions.

3 thoughts on “Equity, diversity, fieldwork, and the archaeological identity : Must archaeologists do fieldwork?

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