What should we be teaching our students?

Archaeology and Digital Technology: The Old and the New

Archaeology then … In 2006 Oxford Archaeology, one of the largest independent archaeology practices in Europe, was the 2nd biggest employer of ALL University of Reading students – and a sizeable percentage of our Archaeology graduates were finding employment in commercial archaeology units. By 2006 the Silchester Field School, a research and training excavation set up in 1997 as an integral part of the Reading Archaeology degree, had been up and running for nearly 10 years. This was a teaching module developed with employability in mind – to teach our Archaeology undergraduates specific field skills as well as more generic transferable skills. It was our aim to provide a route from the books and desks of academia into the commercial niche carved out for archaeologists by the Planning Policy Guidelines. With such a clear route from a university degree into a vocation, it appeared then that we were teaching the relevant, necessary skills.

Archaeology now … 6 years on and times have changed. The recession has hit the construction industry hard and along with it the prospects for commercial archaeology have declined. Jobs for our graduates are harder to find and with less opportunity comes greater competition. More than ever we need to be sure that any university training we provide has a resonance in the workplace. Indeed it seems questionable to run an expensive and logistically time-consuming exercise each summer without it helping to provide a route into employment. Yes, of course we are also adding to the sum of our knowledge about Iron Age and Roman Britain, and we are using the latest excavation techniques to tease every last drop of information out of every tiny bit of soil – but what are our students actually learning each summer? And in this competitive job-scarce environment, will these skills actually help them find employment?

Skills review … I regularly review the skills we teach on site. I also review the skills the students learn … there is a difference … all those social skills developed in those long summer evenings in a field in the middle of nowhere! I have always felt that it isn’t just about learning to hold a trowel in the correct way (although of course this does help); it is also about learning to live and work together for a common aim. And this is what the Field School module is all about – the students are taught to embrace (not literally!) visitors to site and to communicate their archaeological experience. A summer of rotas to keep the camp running teaches students the importance of common aims and responsibilities. Students are assessed on this team interaction and communication, and encouraged to reflect on and develop a portfolio of the skills gained in order to capitalise on their own strengths when applying for jobs.

Digital skills … As I spend longer out of commercial archaeology employment (for this is my background) I begin to worry that I may have lost sight of what skills are important out there. Since I left York Archaeological Trust and joined the university, technology has mushroomed. It was never part of my skillset when I left university – so how important is it now? How digitally aware should our students be – and are we teaching them the most useful skills during their time on the excavation?

Archaeology in the future … One way to find out is to ask. In these times of sectoral recession, what DO Archaeological Employers want from our graduates? I spoke to the Director of a local commercial archaeology unit and received a frightening list: attention to detail, high boredom threshold, common sense, forward planning, ability to ask questions, teamwork, ability to write and draw, good knowledge of and flair for photography, driving licence, awareness of Health and Safety issues, manual handling skills, amount and variety of experience, ability to pick up the phone and communicate etc etc.

Grass roots versus digital techniques … Nowhere in this list do you see ‘knowledge of and ability to work with digital technologies’. How many commercial archaeological units (many of which are one person and a dog trying to survive in a competitive recession-lit world) have access to digital technologies and facilities beyond a laptop or two? If we train our students how to capture data on site with the stroke of a digital pen or the push of a button, how will they fare in the ‘real’ archaeological world with only a tape measure, a piece of paper and their observational skills to fall back on? Far more important – surely – to train our students in grass roots techniques? How can they really understand the importance of what they are recording if they never learn the BASICS? Shortcuts are all very well – but if technology breaks down what are we left with?

Digitally Aware … It is important though that we teach our students to be digitally sensible – to be aware that there are other – faster, maybe, better, maybe – ways of doing things….and if the conditions are right, being able to use them. It is also apparent that employers don’t necessarily want students who are the ‘finished item’ – they want students who are willing to learn and who can fit into a team. This is – I believe – where the Field School comes into its own…the students live and work with up to 100 people of all ages and backgrounds and face daily challenges: how to survive the British weather in a tent from Halfords, the skill of picking pieces of gravel out of their knees at the end of each day, finding new and ingenious ways of carrying mud out of a trench, working together to achieve the accurate excavation and recording of a 4m deep Roman well, remembering what time to put the kettle on in order to make tea for 150 people, explaining to your teammates – and your supervisor – or a visitor to the excavation – exactly what the small piece of orange clay you have excavated actually is….

A field archaeologist’s responsibility … In order to achieve as fine-grained an understanding as possible of change through the centuries, we must peel the excavation site apart layer by archaeological layer, working back in time – and then put it back in chronological order. Each layer tells its own story and must be written about, drawn, photographed and excavated for its artefacts and microscopic detail. If this is not done, no record will exist – it is a heavy responsibility indeed for all field archaeologists to find an efficient and fast recording system.

The Integrated Archaeological Database … In the case of Silchester Insula IX it was evident from season one that the preservation of the stratigraphy was very good and that the number of archaeological layers would lie in the thousands. So from the outset we adopted the Integrated Archaeological Database (IADB) developed by Mike Rains of York Archaeological Trust. The IADB contains most of the archaeological information gathered on site, including digital versions of context sheets, finds records, environmental records, photos, plans and matrices, the building block of archaeological chronology (currently the number of interrelated records held in the IADB: 12,421 context records, 44,471 finds records, 288 matrices and 9,614 photographs..). Students are expected to develop their IT awareness by observing the creation and development of this on-site archaeological database and accessing the relevant web pages. By seeing what comes out of the database, and how reliant it is on what goes in, it is hoped that not only will this will improve standards of recording on site, but it will also develop a valuable transferable skill for our students.

Collaborations … Over the years Silchester has had collaborative helpfrom other university departments – IT Services, Systems Engineering -with the overarching aim of establishing a Virtual Research Environment (VRE). This has allowed the linking of the Silchester site to the broadband network via a wireless connection between an aerial on a site portakabin and one on a barn c. 600m distant. Data from the excavation can now be streamed directly to the server in the university, and we now have a platform for testing and experimenting with other digital approaches to site recording – for example is it possible to enter all the field and finds data without first hand writing or drawing them? The students have been (mostly) willing guinea pigs in all of these on-site technology trials – seasons of experimentation with handheld devices (PDAs) in the trench, ruggedized tablet PCs to record context plans, the use of digital pens, notebooks and clipboards to try to speed the flow of written information into the IADB, and, most recently using a tracking Global Positioning System (GPS) as an alternative to conventional planning using measured grids.  The biggest lesson learned is that these ‘whizzy’ technologies do not always work on site….and the old ways are often the best…….but we need to try them in order to find out.

Silchester’s Digital Highway … Silchester represents a case study of the integration of digital methodologies with a complex, stratified, urban excavation project. Whatever digital systems and approaches are adopted at the outset, they will require continual refinement, re-evaluation and investment to sustain them throughout the lifetime of the project. There is more to improve in all areas: faster, more efficient capture of field-generated data on site; the development of tools to exploit and manipulate that data; the development of tools, such as for 3D visualisation, to enable the larger research team of specialists to make use of and enhance the capacity of the Silchester IADB, particularly in the sphere of academic and public web publication. Looking ahead to the end of the project and beyond, a key issue will be the long-term preservation of the digital archive.

Traditional versus Digital Skills … In summary, I feel that our students should be prepared – prepared to learn new digital techniques of excavation and recording – but that such techniques should be layered over the more ‘traditional’ skills such as use of eyes, use of hands, which underpin the acquisition of all data. With the Silchester Field School we have the perfect test bed to work with, develop, and refine technologies, and it is important that our students are part of this process. There is no such thing as the perfect technique; each situation is unique and requires evaluation and consideration before application.

Amanda Clarke, Silchester Field Director

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