m6MqY3GGcyr8gf6zaZkciZRiAjyXiFhBnhV3QHh-qWkBy Michelle C. Langley

Based on Cosgrove et al. 2013 From the Moat to the Murray: Teaching practical archaeology at La Trobe, University, Australia. Australian Archaeology 76:44–51.

As much as Indiana Jones misrepresents archaeology and archaeologists, the good Professor Jones got it 100% right when he stated—rather matter-of-factly (and while sliding through a library on the back of a motorcycle)—that, ‘if you want to be a good archaeologist, you got to get out of the library!‘.

Becoming an archaeologist is not as straightforward as taking an undergraduate course at a reputable university. While a student must spend much time in the library learning about the history and theory of the various archaeologies practiced not only here in Australia, but also overseas—(Ingredient #1)—there is a multitude of practical skills to be learnt.

The archaeology student must learn how to read maps, excavate using a variety of techniques and methods, set up and use recording equipment such as the total station, locate and record sites (etc.)—Ingredient #2. These skills can only be effectively taught by getting the student out of the classroom and into the field. As Richard Cosgrove and colleagues discussed in their recent AA76 article, the archaeology department at La Trobe University is approaching the training of their students through two different, but complementary, pathways. The first is through the construction and use of what has been termed by its original creator (Jay Hall and colleagues at The University of Queensland (UQ)), of a TARDIS, which stands for Teaching Archaeological Research Discipline In Simulation.

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The La Trobe TARDIS: (left) The Mayan burial being deposited; (middle) The 19th Century Melbourne surburban layer; and (right) Students excavate the TARDIS. Photos courtesy of Richard Cosgrove.

The TARDIS is a simulated archaeological site, purpose built for the practical training of students in the art of excavation method design, excavation, recording and reporting of archaeological sites. Those TARDIS’ built first at UQ and more recently at La Trobe, incorporate cultural layers mimicking real world archaeological features and artefacts (for example, in the La Trobe TARDIS, a Mayan burial, an European Palaeolithic site and a nineteenth century Melbourne suburban deposit). Through instructing the students to (in small groups) research the artificial site, develop a plan of action, undertake an excavation and then catalogue and report their findings to their fellow classmates, students are given a very real insight into how fieldwork is planned and executed. And I should know—I myself undertook excavations in the UQ TARDIS during ‘ARCA3010 Field Archaeology’ with Jay Hall.

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La Trobe archaeology Honours students participating in the Neds Corner Field school. Photos courtesy of Richard Cosgrove.

The second pathway for teaching real world archaeology skills, as discussed by Cosgrove et al., is through field schools. Field schools are common in the US and Europe, but have only become common place in the Australian system of archaeological training in the past decade. In this method, small groups of students are taken out to real archaeological sites and taught ‘on site’. Each participant is given training for the specific technologies and processes used in investigating the visited site, and the analysis of the recovered artefacts. This ‘on site’ training provides Ingredient #3: Experience.

Many an archaeologist will tell you that there is no substitute for experience when it comes to field work. Learning what distinguishes an artefact from a lump of rock, a knapping ground from a quarry, a midden from a chenier, one layer from the next, when to dig or when to field walk, is all knowledge that is built up over time as you work on a range of different sites with different people. You can’t become a good archaeologist without spending considerable time studying artefacts in the lab and sites out in the field (in Australia, often with Traditional Owners who contribute a wealth of knowledge themselves to the experience). In the past, the majority of fieldwork opportunities have come from the archaeology lecturers, however in more recent times, commercial companies are providing the bulk of experience as part of their activities in natural resource exploitation and development. These two strands of fieldwork experience (academic-based and commercial-based) often provide two very different approaches to site investigation and recovery.

Ingredient #4 is research design. Most students learn this important skill in their fourth (or Honours) year at university. This fourth year is the time when one learns how to formulate research questions, design the methods for collecting data to answer those questions, and how to present the research to your peers.

Finally, the very last ingredient, Ingredient #5, is steely determination and passion for the subject. If you are missing either of these qualities, you are unlikely to think that digging a perfectly square hole, in the rain, in 4°C, with the water threatening to break into your section a good time. Nor are you going to stand up to, and stare down, the scrutiny that your work (which you spend years completing) receives all in the name of scientific quality control (otherwise known as peer review).

In all, becoming an archaeologist is a multi-staged and multifaceted process in which the student learns a multitude of information and skills in order to be equipped to lead their own quality research. Many different teachers are required. Many different venues are needed. And the development of new methods for teaching and learning archaeology are important for the continuation of learning about our past. The methods outlined and discussed in this latest Australian Archaeology provide two of the essential Ingredients and point students in the right direction for two more.

For more information on learning and teaching archaeology see:

Burke, H. and C. Smith 2004 The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Burke, H. and C. Smith (eds) 2007 Archaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning In the University Classroom. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Colley, S. 2004 University-based archaeology teaching and learning and professionalism in Australia. World Archaeology 36(2):189–202.

Hall, J., S. O’Connor, J. Prangnell and J. Smith 2005 Teaching archaeological excavation at the University of Queensland: Eight years inside TARDIS. Australian Archaeology 61:48–55.

Walker, M. and D.J. Saitta 2002 Teaching the craft of archaeology: Theory, practice and the field school. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 6(3):199–207.

Field Schools:

Australian university departments offer a range of field schools each year. For information about these opportunities you should keep an eye on the AAA Facebook page, AAA website or visit:

For information about studying archaeology in Australia, visit: