Being Present for Archaeology (A Perspective from the Trowel’s Edge)

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on August 18, 2014 in Archaeology, CRM |


After completing the recent 4-week archaeological data recovery program in Coxsackie, I heard that my field technicians liked that I worked with them and explained regularly (perhaps incessantly) what we were doing and what our findings meant to the interpretation of local archaeology.  To me, it seemed natural that I would work this way.  I would not have done it differently, although I am aware that sometimes in CRM archaeology the Principal Investigator (PI) isn’t present for much of the fieldwork, and reports may be written by people who weren’t there or were overwhelmed with other work while trying to be in (or visit) the field.  The direction of fieldwork from the office accommodates the schedule and task driven requirements of CRM, and works to get the job done for many in over-booked managerial roles.


Since I could have looked for someone to direct the fieldwork (allowing me to be in the office), this seems a good time to say a few words about being in the field to personally direct the excavation.  I have at times lived with a division of labor where I was present in the field and someone else wrote the report, or vice versa.  It’s hard to be in two places at once.  However, I like to be in the field, analyze the data, and write the report.  With our Coxsackie project, I have committed to do this for diverse reasons.  I admit that I like fieldwork and try to bring more sunshine into my plan for well-being.  Moreover, I frequently write and make presentations about our projects, so I like the hands-on approach.  The archaeology of Coxsackie is a continuing story for me, and this brings a high level of commitment.  In Coxsackie and the neighboring communities in Greene County, I have a 15-year history of discovery and interpretation that helps guide current research designs and analysis.  This is a process that benefits from presence rather than direction from a distant city.  Continuity and the development of perspective are among the strengths of small firms doing work locally much of the time (Kent Flannery once wrote that to learn more about a region’s archaeology, call a local contract archaeologist).

I had intended to be in the field on this data recovery project, just as I had on other recent data recoveries.  However, another reason to be in the field on this project was that archaeology and construction were closely scheduled.  Being there facilitated this schedule and the various interactions happening while the field work was going on.  So multi-tasking didn’t go away completely, but I could do it from our field location and keep my intention to be present for the fieldwork.


I mention this reason last, but it is definitely not the least important:  Being there also allowed me to work closely with a staff who were mostly new to me (as Curtin Archaeological was mostly new to them).  I had worked previously with three of the eight field technicians on the project, but not over a long period such as a full field season (although each had impressed me in his or her own way).  Being present in the field allowed me to teach about the job at hand while emphasizing how the work fit the goals and expectations of the project.

Archaeology always has an aspect of experiential learning, as archaeological sites pose a variety of situations that must be addressed by the fieldworkers.  The direct purpose of the project is not experiential learning, but it seems to me that the experience won’t happen well without the learning.  To my mind, this aspect of the work (supervising while interacting and learning about the site) is part of what Åsa Berggren and Ian Hodder have referred to as “trowel’s edge” archaeology.  An important component of trowel’s edge archaeology is to bring the moment to moment interpretation of the archaeological investigation closer to everyone who is working in it.  This can only benefit the results of the work; on the other hand, diminished presence by the PI may diminish the positive synergy that interaction brings to the investigation.


Mindful in another way of bringing people to our version of the trowel’s edge, I found opportunities to focus on some of our most basic activities and findings, photograph them, and share them on Facebook, both with my friends on my own wall, and to a wider audience on our company page.  This is an increasingly popular thing to do, as I see on a variety of consultant Facebook pages.  I think that these captioned images brought the actual moment of discovery to a wider audience while we participated in it and documented it.  Being in the field myself allowed me to make the decisions on how to reveal the nature and pace of our work.  This of course can vary from field situation to field situation.  I should say that this flowed naturally from being in the field (I didn’t plan it ahead of time but enjoyed doing it).

Since CRM is business-like archaeology, to many readers at least some of what I am saying may seem a little “soft” from a business perspective.  Do these concerns make good sense other than from my personal point of view?

Little Big ThingsI will answer this by referring to two career-long positions hammered home on every available occasion by iconoclastic “business-guru” Tom Peters.  First, hard is soft, soft is hard:  no business is conducted well without considering the human aspects of the work, while the people in the business need to be involved as effectively as possible.  Second, the people who run companies (or who work in their upper echelons) do well to be physically present and to interact on a face to face basis with workers and many others.   Arguing that the desk is the manager’s No.1 enemy, Peters advocates the fundamental practice of MBWA:  Managing While Wandering Around.  MBWA doesn’t mean aimlessly wandering (at least not always), but it is something that can bring managers onto the plant floor (or wherever) long enough and regularly enough to benefit their own work from better understanding the work-force’s work.  In the 1980s, Peters (and associate Robert Waterman) saw that not doing this was a frequent point of weakness or failure in the successful functioning of businesses.  Peters has long  pushed MBWA as something requiring wider acceptance and practice in order to improve businesses.

More recently, carrying the discussion of presence further, Peters has made the case that, beyond MBWA, managing on the ground for extended periods is more effective than directing from the office (or travel itinerary).   Whether this is desirable or even possible for office-bound CRMers of course depends upon different organizations and situations.  These questions come to mind:  Does CRM need more MBWA?  Does presence need to be considered differently or more often? To what extent do we feel that focusing on the trowel’s edge is important to archaeology?  While the requirements of what I need to do vary, much inspiration and momentum come from being present where the archaeology is being performed.


(Thanks to Cory Bowers, Meadow Coldon, Megan Comins, Barbara Gengenbach, Jamie Penk, Steve Quirk, Tom Quirk, and Charlene Rode for digging with me at the Fernlea 1 and 2 sites).


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