Practicing Archaeology–An eye-opening guide to the business and challenges of the modern-day Indiana Jones

Review by C.J. Bunce

Four years before Raiders of the Lost Ark appeared in theaters, a science teacher got me hooked on archaeology.  It started with that strange word, but after reading a few books it became the field I wanted to go into.  Then the movie hit theaters in 1981, and suddenly everyone wanted to be an archaeologist.  By the time I got to college, the vocation was saturated, many students not knowing what they were getting into, many only realizing the excitement of digging and finding treasure wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.  I had shifted away from the idea by the time of college, but still found time to take every archaeology course that was offered–as electives–because once the subject is in your head it won’t leave.  Archaeology is very different four decades later, and Thomas W. Neumann, Robert M. Sanford, and Mary Spink Neumann’s new edition of Practicing Archaeology: A Manual for Cultural Resources Archaeology, available this school year for the first time here at Amazon, is a surprising take on what archaeology is today.  In fact, readers will find anyone serious about the field should probably get a second major in business, because that is an integral part of the archaeologist’s day in the 2020s.

Practicing Archaeology is the book the profession wish it had in the 1990s.  The first edition was published in 2001 and has been an accepted coursebook since.  It’s written in a slightly informal voice, reaching out to the student encompassing the wide scope of all the profession entails.  It incorporates decades of the authors’ and the authors’ peers, students, and other professionals’ anecdotes and first-hand trials and tribulations in each key aspect of the changing business of archaeology.

Shifting from a university-dominated profession to one shared by private archaeologists, many practicing on behalf of corporations, what was once a science grounded in field study is now as much about paperwork–contracts, laws, and regulations–as about history and learning from artifacts and other remains, which is now only part of the equation.

Even for an advanced year collegiate textbook, Practicing Archaeology is surprisingly dense, packed with resources that a graduate at a university or within a private firm can use as an indispensable resource for all stages of a project.  Much of the book covers federal government contracts, understanding the process of addressing requests for proposals and the role of scopes of work and what they should include.  It references key legislation that must be followed to address the management of cultural resources today.

The book might also be a good idea for the aspiring archaeologist, as one read may deter someone from pursuing the field.  One chapter on safety covers many reasons archaeology can be dangerous, even if you’re not in a far-off land or exploring deep sea sites.  People might overlook the fact that much work is out in the sun, something I learned on my first archaeological dig–field work is not a friend to the fair skinned.  That said, the sidebar text is full of exactly the kinds of intriguing real-world situations that may light the fire to pursue the field of study.

This textbook also includes plenty of the “good stuff”–managing a project, documenting histories, interviewing relevant subjects, preparing the Phase I plan, creating budgets, learning about survey types, conducting Phase II testing, sampling, testing, mapping, understanding vegetation and soil profiles and map matrices, conducting actual field work, preparing the reports of findings, developing mitigation plans, setting up onsite laboratories, dealing with public relations and the media (and landowners), and finalizing and wrapping up the projects and documenting it all in final reports.  Included are tables and samples of corresponding documentation from real projects, sample first aid kits, sample laboratory contents, even seemingly obvious things like handling per diems.  For any subject not completely laid out in the book, readers will find referrals to appropriate sources to get that information.  Anyone reading the book will be able to design a proposal and respond to an RFP and get to the Memorandum of Agreement stage for a legally protected site discovery.

You can’t get smallpox from burial sites.  The lessons of the Lock Haven Flood Protection project and the disappearance of the Onondaga Iroquois.  The book contains several interesting nuggets of information.

In an era where drones are available, GPS, cell phones, laptops, and more, some folks still advise bringing manual typewriters into the woods for report preparation.  The writers take steps back to their own history, too, to the Works Progress Administration and numerous historic digs and surveys, while finding time to drop references to Ursula K. Le Guin and the Enola Gay (a controversial artifact I personally got to explore while working at the Smithsonian Institution).

Practicing Archaeology includes a hundred pages of relevant Code of Federal Regulations, along with references and an index.  It’s a must for anyone interested in the profession, from students to grad students and practicing archaeologists, while also appealing to anyone interested in the science side of history, museums and curating exhibits, and understanding what the government and private entities are doing when a construction project is stopped for review and analysis.  Practicing Archaeology is available now, here at Amazon.

Leave a Reply