Review of ‘The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook’ by Heather Burke and Claire Smith

01st June 2006

Ormsby BR coverThe Archaeologist’s Field Handbook by Heather Burke and Claire Smith. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004, xxii+406 pp., ISBN 1 86508 862 5 (pbk).

Tim Ormsby

Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia

Fieldwork is an essential part of the archaeological research process. It is through fieldwork that archaeologists gather evidence to test their theories and research questions. This leads to the discourse, discussion and debate that we call archaeology. However, if you are new to the discipline or have never conducted field research before, fieldwork can appear to be a very daunting undertaking. What are the aims of the fieldwork? What equipment will you need? Where should you excavate? How do you actually excavate and how do you properly record what you find? These and many other questions all need to be answered before the researcher can even think about putting trowel to soil. The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook aims to answer all such questions. The authors have sought to provide a ‘hands-on field manual which provides a step-by-step guide to undertaking and successfully completing a wide variety of archaeological fieldwork projects’ (p.xvii).

The book is divided into 10 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the archaeological research process. At the beginning of each chapter is a short bullet point list of what the reader will learn in that chapter, making it easy to find what you are looking for. The book is set out in a largely logical order, starting with how to prepare for fieldwork, including designing research questions, how to obtain funding and deciding on what equipment to take and ending with how to write final reports and getting results published. The remaining eight chapters discuss map reading and navigation methods (Chapter 2), finding and recording site details (Chapter 3), site surveying techniques (Chapter 4), excavation techniques (Chapter 5), techniques for recording historical and maritime sites (Chapter 6), Indigenous sites (Chapter 7), the basics of cultural heritage management (Chapter 8) and finally how to properly take photographs and illustrate artefacts (Chapter 9). The appendices contain a vast array of useful information, from sample recording forms, to a ceramic rim diameter chart as well as checklists for writing reports, tables and figures.

Also covered are factors that, while not always associated with archaeological fieldwork, are very important considerations while out in the field. These include bush survival techniques, tips on getting along with fellow fieldworkers and campfire cooking. Several recipes for field cooking are also included.

No two field projects are the same and as such, every archaeologist has developed different ways of doing things. To this end, the authors have also drawn upon the field experiences of many archaeologists, including helpful hints and tips on many different aspects of fieldwork.

An important aspect of fieldwork that the authors put emphasis on is the legal and ethical obligations of archaeologists. Special emphasis is put on the ethical responsibilities of archaeologists working with Indigenous people. Anyone wanting to conduct research with Indigenous communities should, at the very least, read this section to be aware of how to properly conduct such research. Included in the online appendix on the publisher’s website are the codes of ethics of the professional archaeological associations.

The word comprehensive is an understatement when describing The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. It covers almost every imaginable aspect of fieldwork in an easy to understand and well-structured manner. This book will be invaluable for those just starting their archaeological career as well as seasoned field veterans. I highly recommend having this volume on one’s bookshelf, or better yet, in one’s backpack out in the field. As the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. This book definitely forearms archaeologists against the rigours and potential headaches of fieldwork.

Tim Ormsby
Review of ‘The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook’ by Heather Burke and Claire Smith
June 2006
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