Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.

I have spent a significant portion of the past 1.5 years designing and implementing a series of new courses for archaeology and heritage undergraduate and graduate students at my university. By far the most challenging of these experiences has been the creation of a nine-week field school for first-year undergrads enrolled on our BA in Heritage Studies—a programme intended to mirror the standard field school that archaeology-specific undergrads are obliged to complete. This topic is an interesting one for me not because of the difficulty of launching and directing such a course. Indeed, anyone who has led a multi-collaborator fieldwork project will be intimately familiar with the many logistical, conceptual, economic, emotional, physical and related challenges—although locating frank reflections upon these challenges is not necessarily an easy feat (but see Colleen Morgan’s blog posts on Archaeological Field Schools & Management Styles and Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field; also, if you have institutional access, see Harold Mytum’s 2012 Global Perspectives on Archaeological Field Schools).

Rather, what proved most problematic from my perspective was negotiating the creative tensions and partialities that the field school exposed between the different parties involved in its execution. This proved to be a struggle between, on the one hand, enabling students to freely and meaningfully do their own innovative interpretative work, and, on the other, managing professionals’ (e.g., established academics’) expectations about the analysis and presentation of the project data. The problem seemed to revolve around matters of control, trust and opening up the intellectual process to genuine intervention by new contributors—that is, students.

Such problems are obviously not new, nor unique to the field school context.  The whole concept of community engagement and collaborative practice now revolves around fostering truly equal (as opposed to token) contribution from diverse parties—or encouraging relationships that purposefully privilege and foreground the ideas/contributions of those who might not have previously had the opportunity, the power, the visibility or voice to participate. So I have to say that I continue to be amazed by the fact that facilitating such equal/privileged contribution seems still to be such a struggle when the contributing parties are students.

The heritage field school that I run is slightly different to the traditional archaeological field school. In the latter, students are generally taught the basics of excavation practice: everything from taking a photograph, to filling out a recording sheet, to drawing an archaeological section, etc. There may be an open day, where public visitors tour the site and are lectured to by the students. More recently, the field school might be the subject of blogging by the students or directors of the project (e.g., see Capilano University’s archaeology field school blog; or for a digital heritage example, see Michigan State University’s visualization field school blog). To some extent, though, a student might find themselves without any visibility at all on the excavation—literally or conceptually. In other words, it can be easy for the student to be reduced to nothing more than a rote labourer—trowelling, sweeping, doing simple recording, etc.—with little if any other input or presence. Similarly, as I know from my own experiences as a student and my observations now as a teacher, it is also very easy for the student to adopt this same position, self-defining her/himself as an inconspicuous technician.

This is a predicament that archaeologists have meditated on for a long time: the gulf between theory and practice, and how one might narrow or eliminate it. As Wilk and Schiffer wrote over 30 years ago:

If good fieldwork is an interaction between theory and technique and is also a process of forming and testing hypotheses, then field school students are only trained to do half the job in a profession where half a job is worse than none all. In most cases, training in interpretation or in making informed choices between techniques is sporadic or entirely lacking. Part of the problem is that field school activities alternate between hard manual labor, the numbing tedium of labwork, and listening to the most abstract lectures on theory…Lacking the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to unique, specific problems, the usual field-school graduate tends to be an overly narrow technical specialist (1981: 17).

My concern here is that this predicament might primarily be caused, and certainly worsened, by professionals/academics themselves. I’ll explain by way of example.

On heritage projects (distinct from strict archaeology projects), as I’ve experienced them, it’s hard not to be visible. Those involved are often producing interpretative materials (e.g., signs, guidebooks, exhibitions, maps, apps, trails, etc.) for consumption by a variety of audiences. They work with archaeologists and all the other experts who are involved in teasing out and documenting the tangible and intangible culture that forms the basis of those materials. They work with curators, publishers, IT specialists and all the other experts who are involved in distributing the materials. They work with the many audiences who then interact with the materials, tailoring the work to engage such audiences and ultimately evaluating their impressions. They are thus under constant scrutiny from every angle.

What often seems to happen as a result of this scrutiny is that the creative spirit and impetus for innovative, theoretically-informed experimentation with interpretation is eradicated. For students in particular, at each turn they are questioned by archaeologists about where they’ve located their data, why they would feel comfortable stretching it in different ways and taking liberties with its analysis, how they’re going to make it fit the limited publication/presentation options available to them, how they’ll reach the biggest audience possible, and how they’re going to ensure it stays accurate, ‘true’, immune to misinterpretation by others. In being cross-examined as such, they are effectively worn down into conformity, left replicating existing systems that simply repeat a series of lifeless facts provided to them by others. Whilst much of the interrogation they are subjected to is important and necessary, some of it seems more about boundary patrol and lack of willingness to rethink the subject matter or relinquish control.

The editors of the magazine Current Archaeology (1973:163) once provocatively wrote that “Archaeologists have no Soul.” I understand them to mean that the moment archaeologists are involved in the public representation of the archaeological record (in this case, its visual representation), they usually suck the life out of it. That is, they tend to dispute every interpretative effort that others attempt to invest in the data; they often work to quash expressive detail from the interpretation owing to a concern for ‘getting it wrong’; and they thus reduce the representation to nothing more than vapid accounting. Basically, they obliterate the human from human history, which can then lead their potential audiences to look elsewhere—e.g., fantastical movies, games, comics, books—for more inspired representations. As an archaeologist, I feel the need to contest the argument that we have no soul, but I also know that archaeologists can be paralysed by the uncertainty of their datasets, reluctant to take any risks with the interpretations.

To me, a field school is one place where we should be actively teaching others to experiment, to create, to make and think big. If we’re not encouraging students to do these things here—to take risks and stretch the boundaries—then it’s hard to imagine the theory/practice gap ever closing. Field schools should be safe spaces for creativity and relative intellectual freedom, where you learn the tools of the trade but also learn to push back against their institutionalisation. I’d like to see these spaces become ones where the questions we ask of students are not so much about conforming to fact and method, but about using the method to actually flesh out the soul of the subject matter.

Sara Perry is the Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

Sara Perry

Sara Perry is Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye ( and tweets at @archaeologistsp.

5 thoughts on “Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School

  1. @Sara

    A really nice piece. Maybe too nice. Perhaps the reason why no one is responding to it is that there is nothing to question, nothing negative to say about it.

    That’s interesting to me because, while you are talking specifically about archeologists, I would say that your point applies to what we might call “schooling” in general. Teaching seminars on marketing in Japan to graduate students from mostly European and Asian universities, I was always being struck by the gap between a very high level of competence (measured by being able to do what they were told to do) and a very low level of risk-taking (the only way genuinely new thinking occurs and the only thing, I told them, for which people get paid big bucks in advertising and marketing). I thought a lot about my own schooling and how grades were marked *down* (points taken off a maximum possible) instead of marked *up* (adding points for saying something fresh and thus more interesting). Then I devised the following scheme: I told them that it was easy to get a “B” in my class. Just to what you were told and turn in the work on time. It was, however, hard to get an “A.” To do that they would have to impress me by showing me something I wouldn’t have thought of myself. In classes of a dozen students or so, there were always three or four who knocked my socks off and did absolutely brilliant stuff. There were also at least two who did everything they were told to beautifully and were angry to get a “B.” When they asked why, I would simply reply, “You never took a risk. You will never succeed in business that way.”

  2. Yes, I’ve been interested in the response (or lack thereof) and agree that this is a phenomenon that is not unique to heritage/archaeology. I had somewhat anticipated more critical replies from archaeologists, but those haven’t manifested… Although see a brief comment by John Hawks here:

    Indeed, on Twitter, where I’ve had the most engagement with my post here, the responses have primarily – and sadly – been agreement (especially by students) on this state of affairs.

    I’m glad to hear of others who encourage constructive intellectual risk-taking, and am always looking for models of practice to share with others. Please don’t hesitate to send them along!

  3. Basically, they obliterate the human from human history, which can then lead their potential audiences to look elsewhere—e.g., fantastical movies, games, comics, books—for more inspired representations.

    Cf. Ancient Aliens.

    I see that this is a problem, but it keeps archaeology rigorous and generally on the right path. It’s not like it has stopped making advances or anything like that. In terms of enhancing our understanding of human history, archaeology could hardly be of greater importance. The rigour is a strength, and getting students to question every little piece of data seems like an important thing to do. So while I get the point – we certainly don’t want the past to seem so dull and uninteresting that flights of fancy seem more appealling – I don’t think there’s much that should be changed about the process, given that it is so successful and has generated so much amazing knowledge. Certainly our understanding of the human past is greater than it was in 1973, and it remains just as interesting as it ever was.

  4. Hi Sara,

    There is a lot to think about here, but I could not agree more with your thoughts about risk taking. I think you can add to schooling also the regulatory process which governs much of the archaeology done, at least in my area. There is very little room for creativity in approaches to methodology and interpretation by permit issuers, and a pretty beady eye can be brought to bear on such attempts by the regulators who often, though not always, lacking in creativity and/or tolerance for risk. When this is combined with commercial pressures of consulting archaeology there often ends up with a cookbook approach. It takes a highly creative and risk tolerant person working in this environment to break free from such constraints. And thus, it is all the more important to start teaching such skills right from the beginning.

    There are other pressures too arising from things such who the archaeologist is working for or representing and if their work is being vetted by, for instance, an indigenous community.

    I saw this at play with a project I was involved with that centred on human remains and well preserved belongings. The project had a very large amount of press coverage, and there was constant pressure for pictures of the remains, something not acceptable to the local community. A solution to that problem was to make an artistic drawing of the person, dressed, and in the environment. We tried to do this, but the effort became bogged down in lack of sufficient details for the artist to get everything right since analysis was ongoing. With a certainty that the image would live well past completion of the project we were concerned that something could prove to be wrong, and that such errors, (or even aspects that were accurate) might prove offensive to some in the indigenous communities. So, in the end all the artist’s drafts were destroyed and the effort abandoned (there were other variables too, like time available and cost, but those would have been overcome where it not for the concerns about the risks).

    A few months later a national newspaper commissioned their own artist to render a drawing, based on the limited information that had been made public. In a word, the drawing was awful. There was virtually nothing in it that was accurate, and it is now out there representing the project (though fortunately with a low profile due to the newspaper’s copyright on the image).

    In hindsight, had we on the project team needed a greater tolerance for risk as well as a better understanding of the risks, such as someone else making an image. Had we more space for creative interpretation in some uncomfortable areas (= data gaps), we could have solved the image conundrum with a much better outcome. While I think this is a good example it is not something that is likely to be taught by project team members. Archaeology must be full of similar examples that are suppressed for a variety of reasons that range widely from project policy to participant egos.

  5. @ephem

    Thanks for this first-hand account. Again I am reminded of my experience working in advertising. The account executives are the regulators. Their primary concern is to produce work that the clients will pay for and they prefer low-risk. The creatives are at the opposite pole. They want to do something new and different enough to make a splash, cut through the clutter, and achieve recognition. Meanwhile the account planners and marketing research people (often the same people) are insisting that the project stay “on strategy,” consistent with the communication strategy that they have come up with. The problem is not which approach to choose while rejecting the others. It is always how to manage the tension and find the balance where everyone involved feels both heard and at least moderately satisfied.

    From this perspective, I am inclined to agree partially with Al West. If adding risk-taking in interpretation undermines the rigor of the methods that have, indeed, produced a growing body of knowledge, that would not be a good thing. The most sensible suggestion I’ve heard is from Dan Sperber, who recommends maintaining a clean separation between evidence and interpretation. In the case of cultural anthropology that would mean avoiding the kind of writing that says, “The X believe Y.” Instead, the reader would find, “I heard A,B, and C say X, Y, and Z, from which I infer that they share a belief W.” The anthropologist serving as both court reporter and jury should not confuse the two roles.

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