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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Pleasures of the Field
by Heather Pringle
June 12, 2009

bau-de-laubesierIt’s often said that gardeners live entirely for the brief months of summer. All winter long, they thumb through dog-eared seed catalogs, poring over the pages for new varieties or obscure heritage plants that will yield the perfect tomato or the most fragrant sweet peas. In spring, they count the days until the last frost, anxious to see the first rows of tiny green shoots stretching down beds of rich black soil.

Many archaeologists live for the summer, too. They spend the dark days of winter in the lab, patiently sorting through and cataloguing artifacts and analyzing realms of data—the necessary work of archaeology required by any truly professional dig. But there’s a certain magic about the summer field season, a heady blend of freedom, discovery, high-spirited adventure, and intense camaraderie that is virtually impossible to resist.

I love heading into the field with a team—never knowing what to expect or what the season will reveal, never quite sure who my companions really are. Some field seasons are tests of personal character— in the Arctic, for example, where hungry polar bears lurk around base camps searching for a meal, or in the Subarctic, where clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes line up to take blood samples. One of the greatest displays of macho I’ve ever seen was in the northern Yukon, where Canadian archaeologist Jacques Cinq-Mars, the editor of Palanth, disdained Deet and all other mosquito repellents, and went about his fieldwork covered from head to toe in a black buzz of mosquitoes. I still don’t know how he managed this kind of zen. I had to douse myself repeatedly  in Deet and don a mosquito-netted hat to get through the week. But Cinq-Mars insisted on eating well in the field, and I soon realized that he is the Jamie Oliver of Yukon archaeology. He makes the best bannock bread—sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon—I’ve ever tasted.

Other field seasons are a pure, undiluted joy. One of the finest experiences I ever had was in the south of France, in Provence, where a field school led by Serge Lebel, an archaeologist at the University of Quebec at Montreal, was excavating a rockshelter inhabited some 35,000 years ago by Neanderthals. The team was based in the perfect field camp—a rambling old Provençal farmhouse with a huge harvest table where the crew gathered for meals. And early each morning, before the cicadas began to sing, we drove down to the site in a couple of beaten-up looking cars, with the Clash blasting out the open windows.

I remember many things about that field season—the famous fields of lavender, the great wine we quaffed each night at dinner, the coolness of the rockshelter at mid-day, the square I was temporarily assigned, the wooly rhinoceros bones that littered it. But one day in particular stands out in my mind. Lebel had been excavating at Bau de l’Aubesier, as the site is known, for years, searching diligently for even the smallest trace of hominid remains. Everyone on the crew knew this, and each of us desperately wanted to be the first to find them. I had the great good fortune to be there the day a team member found a hominid tooth—which later proved to be Neanderthal—and I took part in the emotional celebration that followed. Lebel had stowed away a crate of some very fine French champagne for just that occasion, and team member after team member stood up and toasted him and the ancient Neanderthal whose tooth they had recovered. It was one of the best parties I have ever attended.

Most archaeologists experience a day like this at least once in their careers, and the luckiest experience it more often. This kind of shared euphoria is unforgettable, and I suspect that such experiences go a long way in explaining why archaeologists so often tend to marry other archaeologists. Field seasons are bonding experiences.

I know that many archaeologists are now in the field, making good on all the plans they drew up so painstakingly last winter. But I’d love to hear from those who have a moment. What was your best field season and what made it so great?

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

4 comments for "The Pleasures of the Field"

  • Reply posted by Carrie Mann (June 15, 2009, 8:37 am):

    Reading your articles here keep me going with my studies. At the ripe old age of 35 I have started to college (accelerated degree program). I’m working on getting my basics out of the way now and can’t wait to start into electives. My goal is to be an archaeologist when I decide to grow up. The thrill of getting to examine the past may seem mundane to some but to touch something no one has touched or seen for years would be an amazing experience. I’m hoping to use my vacation time next year to work as a volunteer in a field school. If it is nothing but cataloging items (which I think is VERY important) discovered it will be fine with me-as long as I am at least a witness into history re-discovered.


  • Reply posted by Heather (June 15, 2009, 2:15 pm):

    I can’t recommend enough the experience of volunteering at dig. It’s a superb way of learning the nuts and bolts of archaeology, and it’s great fun to watch history being re-discovered, as you describe it so well.

    Readers interested in scoping out volunteering opportunities can always click on the following web address and check the volunteer box:

    Good luck, Carrie!


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (June 16, 2009, 9:00 am):

    I spent my youthful summers traipsing about the badlands of Drumheller, Alberta – the Dinosaur Valley – where my grandfather collected fossils from the 40s to 60s.

    Personally, I never found anything in the hills, but after granddad passed away, I was allowed to take one piece from his collection before the rest was donated to the little city museum. Today, that collection is for sale in little ‘dinosaur bone grab bags’ – each with an official Province of Alberta certificate!

    My piece? I think it’s a35-million-year-old pine cone.

    A couple years ago, I took my young son on a visit back to the Badlands where we camped out under the stars, and toured the Royal Tyrell Museum, which I had never seen before. It was WONDERFUL!


  • Reply posted by Heather (June 18, 2009, 8:46 am):

    I, too, have a great fondness for the Alberta Badlands. My favorite spot there is Dinosaur Provincial Park, a place that has yielded incredible dinosaur finds for scientific teams over the years.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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