So You Want to do a Field School?

If you are an anthropology or archaeology major, you have probably debated whether or not you should try to participate in a field school. This past summer I was lucky enough to participate in a field school through my university. Field schools can provide a lot of benefits, such as the opportunity to gain resume-boosting experience in the field. But they are also a significant investment of time and money. This article will follow my experience to help you decide if a field school is right for you.

An early look at the excavation unit.

Is it a need or a want?

One of the things to consider when deciding whether to do a field school is to determine if participating is something necessary for your future or if it is simply something that you want to do. This can help you decide whether it is worth that investment. I am looking towards graduate school, and having a field school on my resume would be great. However, for someone who is not thinking about pursuing graduate studies, a field school could still provide important experience. If you are interested in working in any archaeological field, the understanding of the routine and skills involved in archaeological fieldwork would be extremely beneficial.

If participating in a field school is not going to make a huge impact on your future goals, it is time to decide if a field school is something you would personally get a lot out of, even if it doesn’t help your academic or career goals, as well as if it is something you can afford. The field school I attended ran for four weeks and cost about $4,000, not including food costs (I’ll break it down further in the next section). During this time I was not able to work at my regular summer employment due to the considerable time commitment required. Thankfully, my parents were able to chip in when I needed groceries and was out of funds.

Participating in a field school can be an amazing opportunity but before you jump in, you should evaluate if you can afford it and if the benefits will be worth the time and money spent. Only you know the answer to that question!

It’s all about the Money, Money, Money


As I mentioned above, field schools are a serious financial commitment. The field school I participated in cost $3950, which included 6 academic credits, transportation to and from the site, housing, and three group meals. The program ran for four weeks at the start of summer break.

This sticker price did not include things like food, supplies, or other personal expenses. Altogether, the total cost came to around $4300: basically my entire savings and then some.  And that was just my school– it is important to remember that depending on the program you participate in, that number could be bigger or smaller and cover fewer or more things. Some schools also offer scholarships or other financial aid that can assist students in affording the schools, which is definitely worth investigating.

And don’t forget to account for the costs not covered by the program, such as food. Will there be somewhere for you to prepare your own meals, to keep costs low? Or will you be eating out every night?

Because you will likely not be able to worth at a regular job while participating in the field school, it is also important to calculate how much money you will be losing by not working at your regular job. If you are spending more money than you would otherwise make, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t participate, but it’s an important thing to know before you make that choice.

To me, the field school experience was worth the financial cost of the program, but without my parent’s support, none of it would have been possible.

So… what exactly do you do at a field school?

At my field school, we learned a number of skills necessary for working in the field of archaeology. From Day 1 we were at the site learning how to conduct shovel tests and set up a site for excavation. My professor taught us how to take field notes that would become part of the official record of the site and about the history of the site we would be excavating. Each day brought new experiences and new things to discover. Below is a short list of the things I learned while participating the field school. It is by no means exhaustive but covers what I would say are the big things a field school teaches you.

  • How to conduct a shovel test
  • How to set up a site for excavation
  • How to excavate a unit
  • How to create a record of the site – field notes, mapping, etc.
  • How to keep track of what you find
  • How to use technology to map out a site
  • How to clean and process artifacts

Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!!

The morning of my first day of the program I was sure I had made a horrible mistake. What had I been thinking, signing up for a non-refundable program that I didn’t even know if I would like? What if I hated it and I was stuck there for the next four weeks unable to leave? What if?

Despite all of the anxiety that I had running around my head that first day turned out great. From the very first shovelful of dirt I screened, I was hooked. Sorting through the dirt and rocks was like a game of Where’s Waldo, each artifact a piece to the larger puzzle of who lived there and how they lived. My favorite find?


Just the coolest little spoon in the whole world.


This silver-plated spoon I found about a week into the program. The spoon features the letters “MB Co” stamped on the handle, likely for the Meriden Britannia Company in Connecticut.

So should you do it?  

My experience with field school was overwhelmingly positive. For me it was a great investment in my future, allowing me to get real-world experience in a field I am interested in, but on top of that, it was just plain fun. I learned a lot about archaeology and made some great memories along the way.  If you can afford the sticker price, invisible costs (such as food), and the time away from work or other commitments, I would definitely recommend it.


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