The first day of excavation finally arrived and the first thing to cross my mind is that there is a vast difference between the expectation of digging a site and the reality of it. We all sit behind our desks at university and the images shown to us of excavations are one of two categories: either the archaeologist at the bottom of a really large excavation pit or is posing next to a significant artefact. Although this is part of it, what is missing is the wider picture, the view showing all of the different aspects to an excavation that involve more than just digging. The only thing comparable is an assembly line, in which unless there is complete communication and understanding nothing gets accomplished. The aspects involved are recording, sieving, using the total station to map contexts and plot artefacts and excavating. My second observation is that an archaeological excavation is the definition of an organised chaos. The amount of equipment, the amount of people and the amount of jobs, not to mention the more or less challenging factors of working in parts of Africa – has there been enough power to charge the equipment and most importantly is there a vehicle that will start. This is probably painting a rather chaotic and daunting picture in most people’s minds, but these are just the underlying factors, the things that make an archaeological field school in Africa what it is.
It has been three days since we started to excavate and the thing that amazes me the most is that nine days ago we all started the basic instructions on various parts of practical archaeology and today, despite the age differences and the experience levels, we have successfully finished three days of excavation. Everyone has a smaller part to a larger job, a job that will eventually be used in academic research, and we are being trusted with a part of the task. At the field school we have done it in rotations and my first rotation was recording. Being a recorder involves everything from setting up the context form to looking after numerous tags all for different aspects, it is a job that enables you to observe all parts of the excavation but it also requires a lot of organisation. The next stop was dry sieving, this involved putting a 14L bucket of dirt through a sieve and what I have taken from this is that I would love to extract revenge on those groups that gave me large clumps of dirt.
Then it was total stations, the activity that required the most communication using a machine that has its own special language that earns it a resounding groan from the inexperienced. The thing enjoyable to most when using the total station is barking commands at the people holding the prism and hearing the odd phrase such as, ‘can somebody please plot my root’. To this there is also a sense of achievement as numerous undergrad and postgrad archaeology students cannot use a total station, giving all of us an upper hand. It was finally my turn to excavate and I have to say that it is an experience I want to repeat. It is a hard long day in the sun but it is a satisfying feeling wielding instruments like a geological pick and looking like an archaeologist due to being covered in dirt at the end of the day. What will stay with me the most is that I am a second year undergraduate archaeology student who can confidently say, yes, I can use a total station, employ the different techniques of sieving and fill in a context form and indeed do I know how to excavate. Even if you are not an archaeologist it is still the most exhilarating feeling when someone yells artefact and then every undergrad, TA and archaeologists have a major geek out over a piece of ‘old rock’. These are the technical aspects to the trip, but what makes a field school one of the greatest experiences is the people. My knowledge and perspective of archaeology has changed for the better because of the close proximity we all have to doctorate and PhD archaeologists. The one thing I know for certain is that when I am back at university, I will know more people in my degree and there will always be the ‘this one time on field school…’ moments.