Review of ‘The Archaeologist’s Fieldwork Companion’ by Barbara Ann Kipfer

01st June 2008

McNiven book review cover AA66The Archaeologist’s Fieldwork Companion by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2007, xvi+467 pp., ISBN 1-4051-1886-5 (pbk).

Ian J. McNiven

Programme for Australian Indigenous Archaeology, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton Vic. 3800, Australia

Students sometimes ask me: What is the golden rule of taking fieldnotes? Usually I answer saying your notes should stand on their own such that another person could read them and understand exactly what you did and be able to take all of the materials you surface collected or excavated and relocate these back in the landscape with 3D precision. As such, your notes must relate clearly with your labelled materials. In the case of excavation, obviously other issues are important such as making sure your excavation units or spits are not too big and that they do not cut across stratigraphic units. Where do archaeologists learn such information? As students, much can be learnt in university classes augmented by jumping at every opportunity for practical experience helping out on site surveys and excavations. In addition to social and ethical issues, two key things you gain from practical experience are physical familiarity with the realities of the archaeological record and how to do fieldwork by doing it and watching and quizzing the fieldwork director and other experienced fieldworkers. However, all professionals know that a broad range of skill levels exist amongst practitioners – some archaeologists have extraordinary skills in deciphering sedimentary changes and identifying stratigraphic units, some don’t. How many archaeologists have the confidence to publish backplots of spits onto stratigraphic section drawings?. For archaeology students, the learning experience on fieldwork is increased greatly by being aware of the broad range of issues and recording techniques associated with best-practice fieldwork. This is where field method guidebooks can be of enormous value.

Barbara Kipfer’s The Archaeologist’s Fieldwork Companion is filled with technical and practical information on how archaeologist’s record, excavate and to some extent analyse sites (mostly terrestrial). It draws heavily on The Crow Canyon Archaeological Centre Field Manual (2001) and as such has a strong American slant. The volume is structured such that it functions best as a reference guide to archaeological field techniques. The seven chapters are arranged alphabetically to emphasis the guide function of the volume; 1. Classification and Typology, 2. Forms and Records, 3. Lists and Checklists, 4. Mapping, Drawing and Photographing, 5. Measurement and Conservation, 6. Planning Help, and 7. Resources. In other words, the volume is not a step-by-step manual on how to undertake fieldwork. Individual chapters have hundreds of entries arranged in alphabetical order to assist easy and quick access to technical information. This encyclopedia-like format is a good idea, but it does take some time to become familiar with the categorisation of information.

As with any archaeology field guide, deciding what information to include and at what level of detail is a balancing act. Some readers of Kipfer’s volume will wish more was said on some topics and less on others. For example, while I appreciate the volume is not a guide to archaeological excavation, more examples of best-practice in terms of how to excavate a broader range of different types of sites would have been useful. On the other hand, the detail in some conversion tables can only be described as overkill. As the volume has been written to appeal also to ‘enthusiasts’, professionals will find some of the lists of animal species and stone tool types a little rudimentary. Yet nearly 100 mock recording forms provide a wealth of ideas for designing your own project-specific recording forms. And in a sense, this is the strength of the volume – it provides a broad range of technical detail on the types of information that could be recorded in the field and standardised techniques for recording such information. There is something for everyone in this volume. The wire spiral binding gives the added advantage of being easy to use in the field.

Recommendations on best-practice field techniques generally translate well to the Australian context. I liked the recommendation that ‘you can never have too many photographs’ (p.275) when it comes to recording excavations. With digital photography, it is easy to run off 5–10 images for each spit. The recommendation to sieve onto plastic (e.g. plastic tarps) is excellent, as is the suggestion to locate the sieve area well away from potential areas of excavation. How many photos have we seen in publications of the sieve spoil heap located adjacent to the excavation pit! In terms of sieve size, Kipfer points out that the ‘standard screen size for archaeology is ¼-inch [6mm] mesh’ (p.219). For most Indigenous archaeological sites in Australia, 6mm is too large as considerable proportions of stone artefact and faunal assemblages would be missed. In Australia, most skilled practitioners would recommend that 2 to 3mm should be considered the standard screen size, supplemented by 1mm mesh sieves where required and samples of sediment that pass through the final sieve for each spit.

For Australian archaeologists, the American slant of The Archaeologist’s Fieldwork Companion should not dampen your enthusiasm to purchase the volume. Indeed, such a slant provides an opportunity for Australian practitioners to consider the distinctiveness of Australian archaeology. In some cases, the slant provides a few amusing asides – I now know how to treat severe frostbite! And first on the list of ‘field etiquette’ is ‘no obscene language or behavior’ (p.191) – if such was the case, then 90% of my field crews would have been dismissed in the first five minutes! For Australian archaeologists, I recommend this volume as a useful companion to the core volume The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook by Heather Burke and Claire Smith (2004).


CrowCanyon Archaeological Center 2001 The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center Field Manual. Retrieved 10 March 2008 from

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

Ian J. McNiven
Review of ‘The Archaeologist’s Fieldwork Companion’ by Barbara Ann Kipfer
June 2008
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