Saturday, 6 June 2015

Field Schools- the good, the bad and the ugly

I had a discussion on Twitter this morning with some of my favourite tweeps, prompted by this article about archaeological (and other earth science disciplines') field schools. It's a pretty straightforward critique of the dominant American model, in which students pay (often a big whack of $$$) for the opportunity to excavate. The problem is that this is often a compulsory component of a degree course, and the author argues that as such, it should be included within the overall fees that a student pays (and God knows they are already prohibitive when your graduate job has a minimum wage attached).

The questions of what field school is for, what it should be, and who pays for it is are important. Field schools are often the first taste of excavation for students, and colour their impression of the commercial and research routes of the discipline. I'd argue that for those students who don't stay in archaeology this is especially significant- archaeology needs support from those on the outside if it is to survive. Field schools are also generating archaeological data, often on important sites- the quality of excavation needs to match up to the quality of raw archaeology, so teaching excellence and strong leadership and interpretation (at the trowel's edge, shoutout to my Ian Hodder groupies) is essential. Ideally, they should also be reasonably priced or (better) free, so that students from non-privileged backgrounds can share in archaeological discovery without being clobbered with even more debt, or even more pressure.

There's the rub. I love the tradition of local university digs, the clambering onto a minibus in the grey of a city dawn, the squashed sandwiches and muddy boots. But UK archaeology, while interesting, isn't quite up there with my Etruscan loves. I wanted, needed, to encounter Etruscan archaeology with my own hands, with my own trowel. So I had to pay. The project receives next to no funding from the University that hosts it- the fees covered living costs for me and contributed to those of staff members. There are scholarships that contribute to fees for those who would struggle, but the fact remains- if you don't have the cash, you can't really dig here. That interest is off limits to you. That's a problem.

There's a worse problem, which happily doesn't apply to the field school I have worked at. It's when someone pays the money, working long hours, borrowing from relatives to follow their passion- and it turns out to be a disaster. At every field school, first time excavators often discover that fieldwork is not their bag- but hopefully they can still find something to enjoy- travel, new friends, time out from the real world enveloped in the physicalities of excavation. But when conditions are atrocious, teaching poor and hierarchies oppressive, the thought of the money paid for an utterly miserable experience is sickening.

It's also bad for the archaeology. My first excavation experience age 18 involved being given a 1x1 and a trowel and bucket and left to get on with it. Cue horror- I had thoroughly absorbed the message about archaeology as destructive science. I had no clue about recording, about artefact types, about anything. A supervisor would wander past about every hour and laugh at my terrified face. It put me off fieldwork for years, as I couldn't face the responsibility again. Better to write about other people's excavations (and there's totally no problem with archaeologists who don't dig- it's not the be all and end all) and not risk screwing up a context forever.

That's a bad field school. But it can be worse. I've blogged before about Kate Clancy's research on abuse in fieldwork disciplines. You pay your money, or you give your time, and you are abused by a supervisor. Disgusting in every situation, free dig or costly fieldschool.

So, what makes a good field school for you? Any solutions to the funding problem? How do you access archaeology that you find interesting without stumping up the cash? And a year on from Clancy's research, what's changed to make fieldwork safer?

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