A Student’s Guide to Archaeological Field School

This week’s OKPAN blog is brought to you by Maddie Currie, OKPAN American Indian Initiatives Research Assistant. Maddie is an OU undergraduate who attended her first archaeological field school in 2016 and is sharing her tips for students embarking on their first field school adventures. Students – this is the blog for you!


Maddie puebloCongratulations! You are about to go to your very first archaeological field school! This time last year, I was preparing to attend the University of Oklahoma’s 2016 field school in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I was in your shoes: very excited, a little nervous, and trying to figure out what to pack. As I looked for information, most articles I found were aimed at graduates who were being hired to do field work instead of students going to field schools for the first time. This made it hard to figure out how to prepare.

The purpose of this blog is to give you the information that I wish I had before my field school so that you do not run into the same problems that I did. So, with a field school under my belt, here are some of my suggestions for how to prepare for your first field school.

Ask Questions

Your field director will probably give you a list of recommended or required items to bring, like flashlights and water bottles. If you have any questions about what to bring, ask your director or teaching assistants. They are very experienced in field work and are great resources when you are going to your first field school. In fact, several of the tips I offer in this blog are wisdom passed down to me from my field school’s director and TAs.

Know the Environment

Try to learn everything you can about the environment that you will be working in. What is the elevation? What is the average temperature, and how does it vary during the day? Is the area prone to severe weather? The answers to these questions will affect what you need to bring or buy. For instance, it is always a good idea to bring a raincoat, but if you are going to be working in an area with frequent rain, bring a pair of rain pants and water-proof shoes. Or, if the nights are really cold, you will want a sleeping bag that is made for low temperatures.

You also need to remember to bring clothes for the days where you are not in the field. My field school involved several weekend field trips, so I regretted not bringing a pair of jean shorts, a non-work shirt, and a nicer hat for when we went to Santa Fe and Taos Pueblo. We were also given an amazing opportunity by being invited by a Pueblo elder to attend a dance at Teseque Pueblo, but we had to make an emergency trip into town the night before so we would be dressed appropriately. Having all of the appropriate clothes that you need beforehand will significantly cut down on your stress levels during your field school.

Taos pueblo

Taos Pueblo

What to Wear

The first rule of dressing for field school is to remember that all your clothes are going to be covered in dirt by the time you are done, so do not bring anything that you are attached to. You also do not need to bring a separate set of field clothes for every day. I suggest taking three sets of field clothes. This will save you money and packing space, and you should have access to laundry before they get too grimy.

CkEHvjJUgAQ-Pb244543When it comes to shirts, you want to dress in layers. You will be cooler if you cover up as much skin as possible, since this will keep the sun directly off your skin, so I suggest wearing an old t-shirt under a thin button-down shirt. I suggest button-downs because you can easily unbutton them, or take them off altogether, if you get too hot. You can get cheap button-down shirts from second-hand stores, or you can sometimes find long-sleeve fishing or hiking shirts on sale at sporting goods stores. Some of these might have built in UV protection or water wicking. Pants might be harder to find, especially if you are looking to buy secondhand, and they are usually more expensive than shirts. Your field pants should be sturdy so they hold up to all the dirt and protect your legs from the ground and any sharp vegetation, and they should have multiple pockets for carrying trowels, field notebooks, pens, and anything else you need to keep on you. In my experience, quality women’s field pants are harder to find than men’s, and they tend to be more expensive. The earlier you start looking, the better.

Maddie field school studentsShoes are very dependent on where you are working and what you are doing. For excavation, an old or cheap pair of tennis shoes will suffice, but it depends on the situation. If you are doing survey or hiking, or are having to walk a long way to your site, you want a high-quality, sturdy pair of hiking boots. If the weather is a little harsher, or you are working in any area with a lot of mud, a pair of work boots will be better. Other essentials are a tough pair of sunglasses, a bandana (or two, one to wash and one to wear) to cover your neck and face, and a hat. I prefer wide-brimmed hats since they cover more and, to paraphrase my field director, they make you look cool.

Living Arrangements

More likely than not, you are going to spend your field school living out of a tent. Again, know your environment. If you are working in a place with little wind or rain, you should not have to spend money on a higher-end, more durable tent. Otherwise, especially if it is windy, opt for quality even if it costs more. My field school was in a very windy area, and I was one of three students whose tents didn’t break or malfunction—three students had their tents completely break down. I also recommend getting a four-person tent, because two-person tents leave you with less room, which can make it harder to get dressed. However, it is up to your preferences.

Maddie field school tents

Our “tent village” in Abiquiu

The same logic applies to sleeping bags. If the nights are warm, a cheap, thin sleeping bag works just fine and may be preferable. If the nights are cold, you will want something that retains heat very well, even if it comes at a higher price. You also want something to put between your sleeping bag and the ground. I suggest a camping cot, even if they are a little more expensive, since they tend to be the most comfortable option over long periods of time.

Determine what your access to electricity will be like at your field camp. These days, it is difficult to leave your phone at home for weeks at a time, so it is important to be aware of how often you will be able to charge it. You may want to consider getting a portable charger, or even two, for your phone and other electronics. If you have a camera and enjoy photography, consider bringing your camera along especially if it runs on store-bought batteries that can be packed easily. You will probably get a chance to take some nice pictures of landscapes.

Other Suggestions

  • Buy a large, cheap package of wet-wipes to take with you. Not only are they handy for any accidental spills, you can also clean yourself off and cool down after field work. You wouldn’t believe how much better having a clean face makes you feel after a long day.
  • Invest in a Frogg Togg or other cooling towel. They usually run between $10 and $20, are easy to keep cool, and will go a long way to preventing heat exhaustion and stroke.
  • Have a contingency plan in case something happens to your phone. There really is no need to take your phone to the site, so you should leave it in your tent until you get done with your work day. That is by far the safest place for it. However, accidents can happen, and many phones have been sacrificed to the pursuit of archaeological knowledge. Some phone companies will let you switch accounts around on phones or activate old SIM cards on a prepaid plan, so it may not be a bad idea to bring an old phone that could be used to do this, if needed. If nothing else, arrange with another student to swap a couple of contacts so you can borrow each other’s phones if something happens.
  • Bring some form of entertainment. You will not have a lot of down time, but it is nice to have a book or a deck of cards to keep you entertained when you do. If you have one and the electricity situation allows for it, e-readers are easy to transport and can store multiple books. Other options are coloring books and puzzle books, but it really comes down to what you enjoy. One student on my trip brought a sketch book. Another is a percussionist and brought blank sheet music and a drum practice pad so he could write music.
  • Make sure that you have sunscreen, and lots of it. Sunburns are not fun at any time, much less field school, and too much sun exposure is not good for your skin. Also bring aloe vera in case you forget to reapply or miss a spot.
  • Bug spray is another good product to have, especially if you are working near water or a wooded area. You may not run into too many bugs in a region like the Rocky Mountains, but you will definitely deal with them in a place like Oklahoma!

Advice from Other Students

I reached out to other students from the New Mexico field school and asked for their tips and advice. Here is what they had to say:

“I wish I had picked a better spot for my tent [she ended up throwing her tent away before we left because it was so torn up] and also that I’d brought a gardening pad for my knees.”

-Damia Collis

“I recommend being well prepared for moderate to difficult hiking (as part of survey work and weekend trips), as far as making sure you have good quality hiking boots and hiking socks. My boots fell apart in the second week and it was a hassle to buy new ones.

I wish I would have brought one large backpack for taking my gear into the field and one smaller one for only necessities during hikes, instead of just one medium sized one.

I really wish I would have had a water reservoir (CamelBak, Platypus, or other). That would have made survey, hiking, and excavation much easier for me.

A good quality tent is a MUST if you’re camping. Buy the one that’s a little more expensive because it will last longer, and dealing with a crappy tent is the worst!”

-Hannah Maple

“Be sure not to cheap out on camping gear (tent, CamelBak pack for when you’re in the field, etc); high quality gear will ensure you’re comfortable both on and off the site. I would also recommend doing some research into the background of the site and its inhabitants, what research questions your project lead is hoping to answer, etc. Appreciate the culture you’ll be studying and understand the impact this field school might have, and you’ll take care to treat the site with respect and do a good job analyzing it.”

-Daniel Quintela

Enjoy it!

Last of all, remember to have fun. Your field school will be one of the most exhausting and difficult experiences of your life, but it will also be one of the most rewarding things you have ever done. You only get to go on your first field school once, so remember to enjoy it. It is not every day that you get to uncover history, after all.

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