Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology – Part 2

by Tracy C. Brown (Editor)

Pass it on to your friends and colleagues.  This is the promised summary of all the unwritten rules in professional archaeology that were submitted to the Archaeology in Tennessee blog and the other excellent participating blogs (Doug’s Archaeology, Succinct Research, Mojourner Truth, and SEAC Underground). All together, we received 40+ unwritten rules. Interestingly, no one submitted rules anonymously by e-mail, but one person used their initials on a comment posted to a blog.  The names or initials of the submitters have been listed at the head of the unwritten rules they submitted (below).

The rules listed in full here have been edited for language issues and clarity.  In some instances, an unwritten rule was a short discussion without a clearly defined rule as a heading for it.  In those instances, we distilled a rule from the discussion, gave it a number, put it in bold font, and used it as a heading.  Here is the list:


1. The Marshalltown trowel is the standard trowel.

Every archaeologist needs a trowel, but not every trowel is considered to be of professional quality. This is a United States rule and may be limited to the southwest, but I am pretty sure it covers all the states. When we say bring your own trowel, what we really mean is bring a Marshalltown trowel. Why? I don’t know. There is something to say about quality, but there are other brands that are quality too. For some reason, the gold standard in trowels is the Marshalltown in the United States. If you don’t have a Marshalltown trowel, expect to hear something about it from your colleagues.

[Note: Doug means a 4-inch, 5-inch, or 6-inch pointing trowel manufactured by Marshalltown. Buy it at your local hardware store. After your purchase, at least one upper edge of the trowel (the longest edge) must be given a sharp, knife-like edge by using a flat file, which can also be purchased at your local hardware store. The trowel is used like a knife to shave away soil with a semi-circular motion in an excavation unit. If you are right-handed, you must sharpen one upper edge. If you are left-handed, you must sharpen the other upper edge instead. Some senior archaeologists advise against sharpening both of the long edges. I sharpen both edges on my trowel because it can be extremely handy like an excellent backhand stroke in tennis. Trowel down a soil profile in an excavation unit sometime, and you too will wish that other edge was sharpened.

Never tell your field school students or field workers to just “bring your own trowel” and leave it at that alone. You must specify the type, length, and manufacturer of the trowel you want them to bring to your site. You should also specify that the flat part of the trowel and the vertical shank must be formed from a single piece of metal. The flat part of the trowel should never be attached to the shank by welds or metal brads. Welded or bradded trowels will fall to pieces after just a few hours of hard archaeological use.

If you fail to specify such things, one or more of your students or workers (often female folks) will show up at your site with huge cement trowels that are 18 inches to 24 inches long. (Been there. Seen that.) [Remember Male Archaeologists: Your goal is to teach your students or field workers how to appropriately excavate an archaeological site with a trowel—-not to embarrass them in front of their peers to garner out loud, male chauvinist laughter. Be kind and loving——-be a decent human being who is nonsexist——and clearly specify the size and other specific traits of the trowel you want your students or workers to purchase.]

2. Archaeological snitches don’t dig ditches.

Professional archaeology is a small field. Many employers will call around to see what sort of worker you are. This is a good way to keep the bad apples out. Unfortunately, this means that some people get unfairly blacklisted, or they keep silent about less than desirable activities for fear of losing their job. No one names names in public. In private, it is another matter.

3. A driver’s license is more important than a Ph.D. in heritage preservation archaeology.

This is mainly a United Kingdom thing, but it is starting to matter in the United States too. A driver’s license is worth more than a Ph.D. to get a job in commercial archaeology. Seriously, you could probably just send in a copy of your driver’s license instead of a curriculum vitae. It would save everyone some time.

4. Everyone digs in the field.

This might not be true of every company, but in my experience, when you are out in the field everyone digs, surveys, or whatever. It does not matter if you have a Ph.D. or high school diploma, 30 years of experience or 3 months, or you are a project manager or a lowly field technician. Everyone does every job―sort of. Of course, some people might be more skilled in one area than another, so they might do work in that area more often. However, everyone is expected to do every job, regardless of your background or position (physical disabilities preventing some work aside). If you do not do (or attempt to do) every job, you will not be asked back to work.


5. Don’t walk past someone’s full bucket with an empty pair of hands. Dump the bucket in the spoils pile for them. Pay it forward.

Simply put.  Be considerate of your fellow field workers.  Good team members think a couple of steps ahead and help out their fellow workers whenever they can.


6. Stay away from the edge of an excavation unit.

When visiting or working at an archaeological site, stay away from the edge of an excavation unit―like a couple of feet away at least—at all times. Accidentally collapsing a profile is even worse than screening clay.

7. In inclement weather it is better for the field crew to get soaked than the excavation units.

When the wind picks up and the sky darkens, secure all of the paperwork and/or electronic equipment safely from the elements. Then grab a tarp, drag it over the excavation units, and tack it down―and make it snappy. If you follow this rule, it will probably be raining on your face. You may or may not be crying, but the archaeology will survive. (Note: Crew member health and safety always come first in the event of inclement weather).

8. Field school—you gotta have it.

A couple of years ago, I met an undergraduate student who was a total rock star in the archaeology classroom. Unfortunately, he was also a student athlete, meaning all of his summers in college were taken up by sports practice. He could never fit a field school into his schedule. When looking for a job in archaeology after graduation, this proved to be a major challenge for him. At the end of the day, course work only gets you so far. You need to get experience in the field, and that starts with a field school.

Just as important, there are plenty of folks who might love classroom or laboratory archaeology, but they hate fieldwork. It is better to find out at a field school and be able to adjust your career planning accordingly rather than getting a degree in something you do not like.

9. If you have the chance, encourage your colleagues to visit the site, and pick their brains when they do.

Sometimes, multiple fresh eyes on an excavation are exactly what is needed to get out of a logistical rut or interpretive challenge. This past week, I visited the Berry site in Morganton, North Carolina, where several of my colleagues and mentors are currently excavating the remains of one of the earliest Spanish forts in North America. Apparently, they had just been visited by a handful of experts in southeastern and early colonial archaeology, and the results of their meetings had shed all sorts of new light on the project (not my place to go into here, but I am guessing it will make an appearance at SEAC-Greenville 2014, if you are interested). In a similar vein, earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to join a group of about 10 other southeastern archaeologists for the first pilot season of work on what promises to be a long-term research project in West Tennessee (again, something for interested people to keep their eyes peeled for at the SEAC meeting).

10. Collaboration among archaeologists may be the wave of the future in American archaeology.

There is always the risk of having too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen in archaeology, but for my part, I found having so many different skill sets on my site in 2014 and so many people to think out loud with to be a total game changer. My sense is that archaeology, at least research-based archaeology in the American South, has not always been so pro-collaboration, but I think “taking advantage of an archaeo-hivemind” is an unwritten rule for the future of archaeology―one that could yield stellar results.


11. Summer visitors to archaeological excavations are expected to bring Popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, or cold watermelon.

When you visit a summer field project, you are expected to bring Popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, or cold watermelon, especially if you arrive at or just after lunch. Any flavor, color, or number of Popsicles or ice-cream sandwiches will do. Make sure you have at least one Popsicle or ice-cream sandwich for everyone and enough watermelons. More is better. Always carve the watermelons with a clean trowel.  If you visit at the very end of the field day, bring cold beer (suggested by commenter Smoke Pfeiffer at the Succinct Research blog).


12. Archaeologists who are visitors at field school excavations need to have a positive attitude, treat students with respect, and be willing to help out if needed.

When you visit someone else’s field school, stay positive, ask the students questions (They are the ones digging, after all), and do not be above hauling buckets or screening dirt. In other words, avoid being an asshole.


13. Thou shalt not comment derisively on the sharpness of another archaeologist’s trowel or the size of their feet.

We think there must be a great field archaeology story here.  We wish JB had told it to us, of course, without mentioning names and projects.  It would have been a good one.


14. Field safety equipment must be worn by everyone―no exceptions.

Field supervisors: if you are going to make your archaeologists wear hard hats and visibility vests on site, make sure that you also wear them. (The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to say amen to that and emphasize that exemption from safety requirements is not a managerial perk in archaeology or any other discipline.)

15. Be considerate enough to locate field toilet facilities close to archaeological excavations.

If your company has you working 12-hour days, make sure the toilet facilities are located far less than 20-30 minutes walking distance away to ensure that all employees are able to secure properly restful break times. (With regard to this rule, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog refers those responsible for siting field toilet facilities to the last four words in the description of Unwritten Rule No. 12.)


16. Do not barge into the field kitchen and filch morsels of food before dinner is served.

Some large archaeological projects have a field camp with living quarters, an associated field kitchen, and one or more field cooks. Such camps often have no air-conditioning, not even in the field kitchen where the stove tops and ovens have been running all afternoon to get ready for the evening meal. The cook staff knows you are tired and very hungry after a long day of field archaeology, and they are in sympathy with your plight. However, numerous people barging into the kitchen and filching morsels of food set out on counter tops adds extra body heat to the already hot kitchen, disrupts the food preparation process, poses sanitation issues, and slows the arrival of dinner time for everyone. Be considerate of the cook staff and your fellow archaeologists. Stash some late afternoon snacks of your own in your room or cabin.

17. Always be prepared to effectively and successfully hide the nonliving field mascot at your archaeological field camp.

Loading a pickup truck or Chevy Suburban for a summer of field archaeology usually begins in a university storage room or museum basement. Sometimes archaeologists fall prey to the temptation to identify and take to the field an important item of material culture that will serve as a mascot to uplift crew spirits and build group unity. While this nonliving mascot might not be the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David, it can be an object that will get the field crew into really big trouble if university, museum, or project dignitaries visit the field camp and take note of its presence. It is best to avoid taking such items to the field. However, if you do and need to hide it quickly, an effective place to do so is in the white, rusted, 1956 deep freezer in the field kitchen. Just make sure it is not an object that would be damaged by the cold or surface condensation when you remove it. Take it out as soon as the dignitary leaves. Exhale! Thank your lucky stars! You have saved the project.

18. Your personality, demeanor, and overall interpersonal behavior with faculty members and fellow students really do matter in your university department.

Some first-arriving undergraduate and graduate students at university departments of anthropology and archaeology believe that their personality, demeanor, and behavior with faculty members and fellow students are irrelevant. After all, the university is offering a service (education), and the student is paying money in exchange for that service. In their minds, It is a simple economic transaction:

Therefore, my personality traits and behavioral characteristics are none of their business.

Here is a word to the wise―lose the bad personal attitude and lose it fast! These factors do matter to both faculty members and your fellow students. If you have some chip on your shoulder, an ax to grind, an abrasive personality, strong narcissistic tendencies, a conceited attitude, bad manners, or other such personal traits, it is going to work against you during your academic years. Only stupid people believe sociopathic and psychopathic behavior are signs of strength that deserve admiration and respect.

The faculty and your fellow students are not stupid people, and they are all watching you closely. As one professor said in the hotel cocktail lounge at the American Society for Physical Anthropology meetings in St. Louis (1976):

I don’t want to be remembered as the professor who let a monster like that loose into the profession.

As a new student, the best thing you can do is to come into the department with genuine kindness, friendliness, and good manners―with an eagerness to learn. Graduate students should treat undergraduate students with kindness and respect. Professors should do the same with their students. Follow the age-old policy of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Your academic years will be kind to you, and they will be an enriching and memorable experience for everyone.

19. Do not repeatedly drop names in conversations with professors at your new university.

You have just received a B.A. degree in anthropology or archaeology and have arrived at another university to pursue a graduate degree in archaeology. Over time, in conversations with your new professors, do not repeatedly “drop the names” of the famous archaeologists you have studied under as an undergraduate. A number of archaeologists around the world and here at home have deep personal enmity with other archaeologists. You may not know who dislikes whom. Some professors are not above transferring that old grudge directly onto you if they see you as being too closely affiliated with an archaeologist they personally despise. Keep your focus and loyalty squarely on your new professors in graduate school.

20. Academic archaeology is not always fair―it probably should be―but it is not as a matter of practice.

It was your creative idea. You did nearly all of the hard work in the field, laboratory, and library, including writing up 95 percent of the results for publication. You thought this was your big chance for solo authorship of an important article in a major archaeological journal. Suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the blue, your academic advisor, head professor, or committee chairman is the lead author on the paper and you are relegated to co-author.

This is a bit more common than one might think. From the honest perspective of some professors, having your name sitting next to his or her famous name on the “by line” makes you look like one really great, up-and-coming archaeologist. Your professor thinks you are the recipient of a great favor, and you get to share in their fame and glory. Your professor gets to enlarge his curriculum vitae along with yours, even though it is mostly at your expense.

Yes. You are angry about it. Any normal person would be. However, whatever you do, avoid throwing a private or public hissy fit about this bad situation. If word of your hissy fit gets back to the professors in your department, it can easily get you kicked out of the archaeology program at your university. Life is not always perfectly ethical or fair. It probably should be, but sometimes you just have to swallow hard, endure such bad situations quietly, and move on with your degree program.

21. Do not unzip your fly and let it all hang out at a cocktail party―or an archaeological conference.

In the private sector business world, where I do most of my environmental science work, we have an unwritten administrative rule that is a commonly recognized element of professional conduct. A manager or supervisor must never belligerently confront an employee about the shortcomings of their work in front of their assembled peers. If correction is required, it is always discussed in private. Failure to do so in private is considered to be gross professional misconduct.

Many students present their papers at archaeological or anthropological conferences, and for some, it is their very first paper. Every once in a while, some senior archaeologist (quite often male) in the audience gets agitated and feels compelled to disagree with the contents of a student paper by viciously reducing the student (often female) to tears in front of the audience (Been there. Seen that.)

Listen up senior archaeologists! You may think this is fun behavior and that you are doing the archaeological or anthropological discipline some sort of favor. Most decent people in the audience see you as a rude clod with an unzipped fly and something hanging out of it. The words coming out of your mouth sound like fingernails on a slate blackboard, and almost everyone in the audience is wincing in sympathy with your target——–not you. Ask your questions and make your comments kindly, gently, calmly, and respectfully—–one time. Then sit down, be quiet, and give other persons in the audience a chance to ask a question or make a comment.

22. “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee’s Archaeological Ethics. This Means You!”

A decades-old Al Jaffee fold-in cover on the back of an issue of Mad Magazine shows numerous gray-haired grannies in long black dresses. All have shovels and are slaving away with bitter sweat on top of a humongous coal pile inside a Rustbelt factory with brick walls. A conveyor belt loaded with freshly baked cakes ascends to a high opening in the factory wall. Beneath the opening is a larger-than-life banner that reads:

Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee. This Means You!

Assorted ethical principles, codes, and standards of practice exist in archaeology. As a matter of day-to-day practice in some quarters of the archaeological world, there seems to be the feeling that these principles, codes, and standards exist as hard and fast rules designed only for the purpose of keeping archaeology students and CRM archaeologists in line and on the archaeological straight and narrow.  However, if you are in academic archaeology and you have the three letters “Ph.D.” after your name, these principles, codes, and standards may somehow feel as if they are not really quite made for you, somewhat wishy-washy, perhaps just lofty suggestions, certainly open to very broad interpretation, perhaps purely voluntary, and you really never think about them all that much throughout an archaeological workday―not really―and maybe you have come to feel (perhaps without consciously noticing it) that your three-letter portion of the alphabet has somehow granted you a sort of wet noodle exemption from the ethical plane that has been laid for everyone else. Sara Lee insists that the ethical principles, codes, and standards apply to everyone. This means you!!!

23.  If you are an archaeologist who wants to visit some field excavations, but you are not already close friends with the Field Director, call first and make arrangements to visit.

If you are a professional archaeologist and the Field Director does not already know and love you as a close friend, please call first and make an appointment to visit the excavations.  Why?  It makes us damned nervous and self-conscious when such colleagues show up suddenly and unannounced.  Many archaeologists really do worry a lot about what other archaeologists think about them personally and about the quality of their work.  Supervising an excavation crew is a highly focused chore, and it is sometimes hard to suddenly shift gears for unexpected visitors who have deep and incisive professional archaeology questions.  We would like to put our best foot forward at the site and be ready for your questions ahead of time. This will make your visitation experience special and more informed. The Field Director and crew will need less diazepam after  you leave.

24.  When private citizens visit your site excavations, never treat them like interfering aliens who just stepped off a spaceship from Planet X.

Chances are high that your excavations are paid for in whole or in part by tax dollars. The regular citizens who show up at your excavations worked hard for those tax dollars, and they buy that cold beer you enjoy at the end of a hot day in the field.  Respect that fact.  Be friendly.  Tell them about your excavations.  Show them a few example artifacts. Thank them for their interest and support. And whatever you do, do not behave as if you are uncomfortable with their presence and want them to leave immediately. Some archaeologists still need to learn this important lesson:

Never bite the hand that feeds you.

Even dogs know that.  You should too.

25. When meeting with a member of the print or broadcast news media on some subject, be it an archaeological subject or your opinion on Jennifer Aniston’s new hairdo, never miss an opportunity to inject a slam against looters and the looting of archaeological sites.

This is something we have noticed across many years. There is no written rule in archaeology that says to do this, but it is almost certainly an unwritten rule in professional archaeology because nearly every archaeologist does it in one way or another.  If they ask you about Jen’s new hairdo, it works something like this:

Yes, I really love Jen’s new hairdo—even if Brad no longer cares.  Well…mostly. Notice that gap in her hair on the left side?  That gap drives me crazy!  It looks just like that slithery trench a bunch of looters put into my archaeological site last summer—tore the place all to pieces—wrecked the archaeological context.  It was just awful!!!

26.  Field Directors and Field Assistants do not have a special license to be slackers during archaeological field investigations——just because they outrank the other members of the field crew.

In the U.S. military, commissioned combat officers know that the best way to lead field troops is to go into battle with them, share in their toils, share in their sufferings, share in their pain, share in their fear, share in their setbacks, share in their joys, share in their victories, and share in their defeats. The same is true for the best-quality Field Directors and Field Assistants during any archaeological field investigation. For example, let us say that you are a Field Director or Field Assistant and your field crew is spending multiple days under a hot sun, 90 percent humidity, and a throng of biting insects. Your field crew is doing nothing else but boring skim shoveling across multiple 3-acre to 6-acre areas of mechanically removed topsoil.

You do not go down to a shady spot along the river and just chill or otherwise relax while your crew members are undergoing immense suffering under a hot sun. If you have no other important work to do, you grab a shovel and suffer with your crew members all day long. Otherwise, your workers will lose most of their respect for you, which can lead to people problems in the field—legitimate and highly destructive people problems that lead to low field crew morale and poor quality work. In addition, word of your slacking and disregard for the feelings and sufferings of your field crew members travels fast, and eventually through time, no one will want to work for you. A Field Director or Field Assistant with no field crew is one damned hard row to hoe if you have a field project that needs to be completed. Real leaders lead by example, jump in shoulder-to-shoulder with their crew members, and endure difficult field conditions along with them. Never forget that.

27. Unusually knowledgeable and talented undergraduate archaeology students need to “play dumb” with their undergraduate peers and a little less dumb with graduate students. They should always “play smart” with their professors.

This may not happen much anymore, but it is worth noting if you are a uniquely knowledgeable and highly experienced freshman undergraduate student in archaeology. Once upon a time in the 1960s and 1970s, a few K-12 students attained vast amounts of archaeological knowledge and experience on their own by the time they were a senior in high school. Their knowledge and experience were obtained through great personal drive and enthusiasm for archaeology; collecting Native American artifacts as a child; deep personal study of archaeology; participating as summer volunteers on professional excavations; and/or studying for years at the knee of a close blood relative or next door neighbor who was a professional archaeologist—or another person very knowledgeable in the discipline of American archaeology. I actually knew three such rare people in the 1970s.

These rare people graduate from high school and show up for the first time as undergraduate freshmen archaeology students at colleges and universities. For all practical purposes, they arrive at college with most of a B.A. degree in archaeology (or more) already burned deeply into their brain cells. Are you one of these rare people? If so, as the old saying goes:

No one likes a know-it-all—or a show off.

If you start liberally spreading around all of your vast knowledge and experience with your undergraduate archaeology peers——look out. Many freshman students have an interest in archaeology that was sparked by merely reading National Geographic Magazine or by watching video pulp fiction “archaeology” (e.g., gods-from-outer-space features) on The Discovery Channel. Those poor souls will not know what to make of a person like you. They may feel bad about their severe lack of real archaeological knowledge (compared to yours) or feel personally threatened in your presence because you already know so very much…and they know so very little. Go easy on your peers and try to blend in with them as much as possible. This will prevent a whole lot of social heartache for you and them.

Archaeology graduate students, in particular, are strange creatures poised in limbo between being a mere student on the one hand and being a full-fledged professional on the other hand—and they value departmental social status (however meager) more than just about anything. Those who have already attained some meager level of status (Graduate Research  Assistant or Graduate Teaching Assistant) have worked very hard and licked more ass than you can possibly imagine to achieve that tiny measure of status. Such graduate students may feel especially threatened by you and your highly precocious nature. If they feel threatened by you in some way, one or more jealous graduate students like this may undertake secret, personal, behind-the-scenes efforts to destroy both you and your reputation. Just remember—all academic politics tend to be petty and local—always. How do you prevent or survive a petty onslaught such as this?

Socially, it is probably best to “play dumb” (like an ordinary student) with your undergraduate peers and play just a little more knowledgeable with graduate students—but not too much so. You should always—from the outset—play smart with all of your archaeology professors because one of their chief jobs is to identify rare, extraordinary talent—like yours—that is ripe for graduate school. If your professors recognize your rare talent early on and like you personally, they can and will protect you from jealous, renegade graduate students who have nefarious intentions toward you.

Within its ranks, American academic archaeology is home to numerous graduate and undergraduate students who have toxic personalities and are vicious back stabbers. Therefore, in your academic department, be wise, be careful, and watch your back at all times.


Bill White at the Succinct Research blog has set forth 10 additional unwritten rules in professional archaeology for you, and his commenters have made some excellent comments on those rules.



Maurice Major at the Mojourner Truth blog has provided us with some excellent unwritten rules in professional archaeology, and you can read those by clicking on the following link:


The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to kindly thank everyone who participated in our attempts to identify unwritten rules in professional archaeology and thank those of you who have come here to read them. We almost certainly missed some unwritten rules along the way. If you think of any additional ones, let us know, and we will add them to the list.  Also, if we forgot or overlooked rules that you submitted, we apologize.  Please let us know about our error, and we will put them up.  If you disagree with any of the unwritten rules or just want to say a few syllables about them, please click on “Leave a reply” at the top of this post or send us an e-mail message to let us know what you think or how you feel.  Our e-mail address may be accessed by clicking on the “Contact” tab at the top of our main page.  Have a great day!!!

1 thought on “Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Even More Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology | Archaeology in Tennessee

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