What does it mean to do good archaeological interpretation?

Some reflections for Cambridge University Press on how we might foster creative & critical interpretations of the archaeological record in the field…

Screenshot from Cambridge University Press of my blog post on doing good archaeological interpretation. The photo features some of our CONCH Project collaborators at Uzikwasa’s offices in Pangani, Tanzania, July 2018: http://www.conchproject.org

After the publication of my heritage interpretation article last month, I had the good fortune of being recommended by the Society for American Archaeology as ‘article of the month’. Yay! This has allowed me to publish a follow up blog post that elaborates on some of my argument (and responds to certain critiques). It’s also triggered a month of open access to the original journal article, which you can read or download here.

My blog post offers examples of some of the most inspiring work that I’ve been exposed to recently. Please read about it here, and if you have time to recommend other interesting and innovative examples of field-based interpretative experimentation, I’d be excited & grateful to hear from you!

I’d also like to acknowledge the following individuals who helped me to further think through aspects of my argument (although, of course, they are not responsible for the contents of my blog post!): Tessa Poller, Oliver Harris, John Swogger, Francesco Ripanti, Peter Dunn, James Dixon, Chris Walker, Bill Caraher and Harald Fredheim.

Six Fieldwork Expectations: Code of conduct for teams on field projects

My living document for guiding my own and my teams’ experiences on fieldwork.

Team members Jess and Emmeline work together to install signage in Çatalhöyük’s replica houses in summer 2017 – part of a very collaborative & fun recent field season! (Photo courtesy of Ashley Fisher)

UPDATE – 26 MARCH 2019

After receiving much significant feedback from practitioners around the world, I’ve updated this code of conduct.


>> I’ve made changes to the wording of points #4 and #6 to clarify my intent, to acknowledge more clearly where responsibility lies, and to reiterate the professionalism that should underlie all aspects of field practice.

>> I’ve changed the name of this blog post – and the code overall – to reflect the fact that it is seemingly relevant to all field projects, not merely to archaeology and heritage. (Thanks to the many of you from different disciplines who’ve encouraged me to do this.)

>> I’ve added links to several additional resources authored by others that have been recommended to me. These relate to specific matters that have affected my teams or colleagues, but for which I’ve previously lacked meaningful guidance. I hope to be able to integrate these directly into the code after I’ve had an opportunity to apply their recommendations in the field. If you have further links to share, please send them to me & I’ll add them!

>> I’ve created a Google Doc with the revised code of conduct in full, which you can access here and use in your own practice if it seems appropriate. If you implement it or modify it, I’d be really appreciative if you could let me know what worked and what didn’t. I’d like to keep track of this and ideally build a repository of best practice. NOTE: the Elizabeth Castle Project has done just this, modifying the code in a way that helpfully specifies the responsibilities of different groups of participants, and adding a couple more important points.

I’m very grateful to everyone who has circulated this code and provided truly constructive critique. I would like to explicitly thank Claire BoardmanCat Cooper, Sue Ann McCarty, Sarah May, Gabe MoshenskaLucy Shipley, and Dav Smith for taking the time to guide me towards relevant materials or otherwise help me rethink the phrasing I’ve used. I hope I’ve done justice to their generous feedback. 


Like many archaeologists, I am readying for a summer of fieldwork abroad in multiple places with various teams. The issue of how to prepare one’s team members for these fieldwork opportunities is something that’s often on my mind, and I’ve been prompted to think critically about my approach lately, as a result of three productive influencing forces.

Firstly, I’m enrolled on a leadership training programme at York (Leadership in Action), which I’ve found very meaningful so far, and which has forced me to revisit (and be coached through) some of my most challenging supervisory experiences. These are experiences that are now past, but I still ruminate on them, continuously questioning my actions and wishing I could turn back time to negotiate them in a more skilled fashion. My leadership training has encouraged me to think about the expectations that I set for myself and others (then, now and for the future), and how I communicate these to everyone who’s implicated, and how to enforce them when things go off track.

Secondly, I was very affected by reading Lisa Westcott Wilkins’ recent post ‘Notes from the Unemployable’ where, amongst other important matters, she discusses the Learning Agreement that DigVentures (DV) has drawn up for their students. As Lisa writes, “The ‘Dignity on Site’ part of this agreement is also signed by every staff member, subcontractor, and dig participant that comes into our orbit,” effectively turning the document into a set of expectations – a code of conduct – to which everyone is bound. I’ve been really inspired by the language and scope that DV have adopted here, and it prompted me to pull out the Fieldwork Expectations (copied below) that I drafted last year for use with my own teams. I prepared this after a challenging fieldwork season in Egypt when I realised I had few guidelines and had been naively operating primarily on trust. After reading DV’s agreement, I’ve now tweaked my own document to broaden its focus, adding points around witnessing (alongside being subjected to – or perpetrating) threatening behaviours, and extending the agreement to include online and mobile phone-based engagements in the field too. I’d encourage you to read DV’s agreement, because I’d previously struggled to find any models that I felt were useable or adaptable for me (indeed my university had no guidance at all at the time).

Thirdly, I’ve been speaking with a great friend and colleague at York who is preparing for her own fieldwork this summer with a large and diverse team. We discussed the options for codes of conduct, and it’s encouraged me to publish my own Six Fieldwork Expectations below for your thoughts and *constructive* feedback. I’m interested to make this agreement more robust – I consider it a living document in the sense that I aim to renew it each year and with each new team of collaborators. Please don’t hesitate to share your respectful ideas about what’s worked for you and what you’ve seen applied successfully elsewhere…


Six fieldwork expectations.

First published 4 May 2018. Revised 1 June 2018.

(1) We are committed to working as a team. All aspects of our professional contributions to the project are discussed and agreed upon together, and all tasks – although they might be led by individual team members – are developed through collaborative practice. Devotion to supporting the team, working as a team player, providing constructive critique to your team members, and respecting the interests of the team as a successful working group (without compromising their safety or security, as described below), are paramount.

(2) We are committed to prioritising and championing the people and communities that host us. Our work is driven by local needs, and decision-making is grounded in evidence and robust data gathered in local contexts. We are critically aware of the existing evidence. We attend events and participate in activities that are organised by our host communities. We respect, care for and create long-lasting friendships with our hosts. We aim to abide by local expectations around dress and custom, and if working in communities where the primary language is not our own, we are committed to learning the language. We maintain links with our hosts after the project ends and we support their future professional endeavours.

(3) We are committed to the working hours, professional expectations and responsibilities defined by the overall project directors. We typically work as part of a larger project team guided by wider goals than ours alone. We are aware of their responsibilities, we have read the necessary guidance documents, we have understood and signed the necessary insurance and risk assessment documentation, and in all cases, we respect and abide by the instructions given by the directors. This includes zero tolerance in relation to behaviour that compromises the wellbeing, equality, security or dignity of other human beings, as described below.

(4) We are representatives and extensions of the University of York and its staff, and of the professional bodies to which we and our project leaders are subscribed. We recognise our duty of care to, and our responsibility for professionalism in, not only the communities where we work and reside, but the university and host of surrounding organisations to which we and our project leaders are accountable. Our behaviours reflect on these institutions and we acknowledge that our direct supervisor is (and therefore we too are) bound by the ethical and professional codes of both York and her other institutional affiliations (the Society for American Archaeology, the American Anthropological Association, the European Association of Archaeologists, the CAA: Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology). Considering these obligations, you agree with the following:

I will come to my direct supervisor the moment that I experience problems, challenges or trouble of any kind. I will keep her informed of any issues that I feel may manifest themselves in relation to myself, my teammates or affiliates while in the field. If I feel I need support beyond my direct supervisor, I will turn to the 2nd lead for their advice. I have already disclosed to my direct supervisor any potential matters of concern (which may include matters relating to health, psychological and physical wellbeing, security, equality, confidence, interpersonal relations, previous travel or fieldwork experiences, etc.) so that she is aware of them and can mitigate them prior to departing for – and during – fieldwork. If I have not yet disclosed such matters, I agree to do so as soon as possible. I have shared this information in confidence, with an expectation of complete privacy unless urgent medical, safety/security or other legal intervention is required.

(5) We recognise that fieldwork can be intense, emotional and tiring. We understand that things can go wrong, that we may need to compromise, and that in exceptional circumstances, we made need to shorten or modify your work on site to help manage these circumstances. In such cases, we will have a series of conversations about how to deal with difficulties, led by your direct supervisor and/or the 2nd identified lead. If the difficulties are not resolved within 7 days of identification, we will consult with the university for their guidance. If it is agreed with the university that the difficulties are unresolvable in the field, we will help you to organise your safe return home.

(6) We have the right to a safe, secure and non-threatening working and living environment. We do not tolerate any form of discriminatory, abusive, aggressive, harassing, threatening, sexually- or physically-intimidating, or related problematic behaviours that compromise the wellbeing, equality, security or dignity of other human beings (whether those humans are our peers, colleagues, supervisors, collaborators, local community members or any persons at all). Our supervisors are trained in supporting those who have experienced or are experiencing harassment. They are obliged to investigate and respond to observed, implied or directly reported harassment. Considering this zero-tolerance policy, you agree to the following:

I will not engage in behaviour that compromises the wellbeing, equality, security or dignity of other human beings. I recognise that if I am implicated in such behaviour I will be required to leave the project at my own expense and may be subject to criminal investigation.

If I witness others being subjected to such behaviour, I will report it immediately to my direct supervisor. If I feel I cannot speak to my direct supervisor, I will report it to the 2nd identified lead. If I feel I cannot report it to either my direct supervisor or the 2nd lead, then I will contact the University of York Department of Archaeology’s Manager.

If I myself feel unsafe or uncomfortable, I will report it immediately to my direct supervisor. My supervisor will support me and will implement actions to keep me safe while working to stop the behaviour. If I feel I cannot speak to my direct supervisor, I will report it to the 2nd identified lead. If I feel I cannot report it to either my direct supervisor or the 2nd lead, then I will contact the University of York Department of Archaeology’s Manager.

My commitment to creating and maintaining safety and security for all extends to my online (web and social media) and mobile phone interactions, and I recognise that the process for reporting and acting on threatening online/mobile phone behaviours is the same as above.

Direct Supervisor (name and contact): ……………………………………………………………

2nd Lead (name and contact): …………………………………………………………………………

Department of Archaeology Manager (name and contact): …………………………………


Important University of York links.

Health and Safety: https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/intranet/dept-info/health-and-safety/

Code of Ethics: https://www.york.ac.uk/staff/research/governance/research-policies/ethics-code/

Code of Practice On Harassment: https://www.york.ac.uk/admin/eo/Harassment/code.htm

Personal Relationships Policy: https://www.york.ac.uk/admin/hr/policies/hr-procedures/personal-relationships/policy/

Drug and Alcohol Policy: https://www.york.ac.uk/admin/hr/policies/health-well-being/alcohol-drug-substance/policy/



Key resources for fieldwork directors. Please suggest others by contacting me.

Inclusive and representative field practices: 

Alcohol consumption and hosting dry digs:

The Elizabeth Castle Project’s adaptation of DV’s learning agreement and this code of conduct for their fieldwork and engagement programme in Jersey:

Prof Jennifer McKinnon’s adaptation of DV’s learning agreement and this code of conduct for her fieldwork programmes through East Carolina University:

Lessons learned from being a Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator

Here are my 15 hard-won tips for the management of complex, multifaceted projects…

York EMOTIVE family
Some of our University of York-based team members in Athens for a meeting of the EMOTIVE Project (http://emotiveproject.eu/) in May 2017. From left to right: Laia Pujol, Angeliki Tzouganatou, Sophia Mirashrafi, and me. Photo by NOHO (http://noho.ie/).
I started to write this blog post a long time ago (December 2015) at the close of our first field season in Egypt on the Memphis Site and Community Development Project. That project is soon to wrap up (and, fingers crossed, we will be able to publicise the results shortly!), and in the meanwhile, we got the great news that we won €2.6 million in funding from the European Union for the EMOTIVE Project. EMOTIVE launched in November 2016, and we now have a series of active case studies under development, several being spearheaded by my amazing students at York:

  • Sophia Mirashrafi who’s crafting an interactive experience for groups of individuals on the dynamics of egalitarianism,
  • Angeliki Tzouganatou who’s creating a chatbot for Facebook users who are keen on the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük,
  • Camille Boulais-Pretty who’s exploring the possibilities of virtual environments for telling short stories around human emotions,
  • Emmeline Batchelor who’s writing semi-fictional audio narratives about Neolithic Çatalhöyükians *

While all of this has been happening, I have also been lucky enough to win priming funds from both MUPI (an incredible initiative!) and the Centre for Digital Heritage to pursue other collaborative research, including a partnership with JORVIK we’ve called Viking Hack @ JORVIK (inspired by the fabulous Museum Hack), and a spectacularly cool digital diorama project with Colleen Morgan and Stu Eve.

As one can imagine, with so many things happening simultaneously, I’ve been busy and exhausted. So, I never got around to writing this blog post on a topic that I was desperate to know more about – and that I’ve searched in vain for relevant information about over the past few years…

What I wanted to know was:

What does it mean to be a project lead – a principal or co-investigator?
What must you know before you take on such a role?
What problems or issues should you anticipate in applying for and running or co-running a project – problems that are not akin to anything you would have experienced in doing smaller or independent work (e.g., your PhD)?
How do you successfully navigate these problems?
How does project leadership abroad differ from project leadership done in one’s own home country/region?

Perhaps for obvious reasons, most of the advice available online in relation to these questions seems unhelpfully generic. Some has certainly resonated with me (e.g., see articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education). However, after applying for countless grants (only a handful of which, of course, were funded), after working with teams ranging from small (5 people or less) to large (80 or more), after doing projects both locally and in various foreign countries where English is not a key or important language, I feel there’s actually much that can be spoken about with specificity.

I have experienced many challenges on these projects, and I feel incredibly lucky that my teams have supported me through these challenges (thank you to all my #heritagefamily) – helping me to build what I see as a running list of things to remind future-me about as new ventures emerge and previous ventures are extended. One of the ultimate failings of the education that I received, I think, is a lack of attention to these specificities, which can easily lead you down a path where you find yourself unprepared, overworked, confused, frustrated and supremely disillusioned. Yet there are relatively basic means to help curb some problems, and to thereby enable one’s work to flourish.

So, here are my 15 lessons learned so far in my capacity as a PI/Co-I on complex, multifaceted projects like Memphis and Çatalhöyük, and smaller (although still complex) projects like our annual Heritage Practice fieldschool. I have split this list into parts, and I’d love for you to add to it or edit it or otherwise share your own experiences with me, if you’d be willing.

This is the kind of list that I wish I’d known about before launching into my career. I suppose, for me, in the flurry to (1) prepare funding bids, (2) predict what will be needed in the (often unlikely) chance that you’ll win these bids, and then (3) deliver the project, I’ve sometimes overlooked simple things. This list may come across, then, as exactly that – simple – but for me it’s become incredibly important for my professional development.

15 Hard-Won Tips on Being a PI or Co-I

In the lead-up to a project:

  1. Apply for small pots of pilot funding to explore opportunities before venturing to bid for large grants. All of my successful projects have grown from smaller collaborative endeavours, often funded through little grants of £1000-3000 (enough to cover a portion of travel, some technology and related expenses). These funds have come from my own department, my university or other organisations (e.g., the British Institute at Ankara, the World University Network, MUPI). They have enabled us to network with others, build teams, collect data and prepare conference presentations and journal publications, which have then fed into the case for support for larger bids for funds.
  1. Allow sufficient time (as much as possible!) to develop rigorous proposed case studies to accompany grant applications. All of the major grants that my teams have won have included within them very specific outlines – including illustrations and clear graphical representations – of the types of work we intend to do, and how it responds to the research questions and grant specifications. These case studies are usually denoted via boxed text – singled out – and provide significant detail that one otherwise might be inclined to gloss over in favour of expressing the project’s larger vision. They add a tangible quality to applications, making them, I believe, more likely to resonate with reviewers.
  1. Be thorough in reading and responding to funding application documents. Every funding bid has a long descriptive text outlining all the variations and possibilities of the grant. Go through this text line-by-line and make sure you physically chart out (and make obvious to your reviewers) how your project attends to every single point. 
  1. Partner with colleagues who have previously won major grants. The applications that I’ve submitted with successful colleagues are, in the end, far more robust and convincing in their articulation, and it has only been through such partnerships that I have been able to move from small grants to large grants. **
  1. Budget sufficient money to pay trained research fellows and assistants to work with you. I am fortunate to have incredible student volunteers who’ve collaborated with me for short periods of time on all of my research and engagement endeavours. But for reasons of stability, rigour, accountability – not to mention ethics and fair pay – this volunteerism (which I consider important and essential for skill-building) needs to be buttressed with expert paid staff.
  1. Always budget for a professional translator if working in multiple languages. This is a point that I’m reminded of every time I’m part of a project abroad, and yet, in my experience, it is a form of labour that is often unaccounted for – or that is assumed as something that will be done by team members who are fluent in the language (regardless of whether or not they have the time or training to manage such translation). This temptation to translate documents using any member of one’s project team is very high. Yet it can be highly problematic, for reasons that range from exploitation to gender bias. (As one commentator pointed out to me, women are seemingly most often targeted for such work.) Professional translators may come with their own issues (e.g., the tone or intent may, literally, be lost in their translation), but on the Memphis Project a professional translator has been complemented with our own translation committee (a handful of team members who help to oversee the process).
  1. Always budget for a professional graphic designer and a photographer. I cannot express with enough emphasis just how important and impactful it is to have a compelling visual presence for your project. Please do not rely on volunteers or enthusiasts alone to do such work. The skill, the knowledge, the understanding of audience and mood, the capacity to create attachment and investment that come with hiring professional visual practitioners should not be underestimated. Moreover, they can coordinate with printers and manufacturers, providing exact specifications regarding formats, colours, quality, etc. – and overseeing the process of production – which is essential for professional-level final outputs.
  1. Have a contingency fund. It is a truism that any community or engagement project will have unforeseen and unpredictable dimensions. Make sure you have a pot of money/resources set aside to negotiate these dimensions.

Once you’ve launched your project:

  1. If running field-based projects, schedule very short daily meetings with your team and do not compromise on them. We always do this at Çatalhöyük, but here my team is smaller (c. 10 people total). At Memphis, it was only when one of my great friends from AERA began to convene such daily meetings for our supervisory team that we actually all (10-15 supervisor-level staff who together oversaw dozens of students + affiliated project members) sat down to plan/reflect. This meant we were far more efficient in dealing with complex issues. Given the size of the supervisory team and the size of our student cohorts, such meetings were particularly critical in keeping us all on the same page.
  1. Reflect on your progress and give praise both at formalised points in the process and informally with all members of your team. Work hard to give positive reinforcement, and try always to use an individual’s strengths as the reference point when discussing areas of necessary improvement. Being candid but still complimentary has proven necessary in my teams for quickly addressing problems when they arise. And sharing compliments and positive energy with everyone – students, colleagues, supervisors – the whole team – is crucial, especially in order to buffer against future problems and to build camaraderie that can keep a team solid in more tumultuous times. I feel this practice – of giving regular praise, and also of encouraging your team members to be generous in giving their own praise to their peers, colleagues, supervisors, and others – is the ultimate confidence booster, an obvious sign of compassion, understanding and care, and hence a major determinant of project success.
  1. Prepare (and, if you deem it necessary, then sign) contracts with volunteers who accompany you on fieldwork. We do this with dissertation students in our degree programmes at York, and I’ve increasingly come to see the import of such contracts. They specify both what you expect (in terms of day-to-day work, comportment and courtesy, previous experience, preparation, commitment and ethics) and what your volunteers can expect of you. They create the foundations for your relationship, and most importantly, if anything goes wrong, they offer something tangible to refer back to for guidance in resolving matters.
  1. Don’t expect to get anything else done while working on a major project. I don’t think this point needs to be elaborated beyond saying: be realistic about your time and manage your expectations around what can reasonably be achieved in the hours allocated to you.
  1. Be prepared for bafflingly high levels of administration and paperwork. I can honestly say that one of the most shocking things for me about becoming an academic has been grappling with the amount of time and energy that needs to be invested in writing and replying to emails, report-writing (unpublished), participating in many administrative meetings, filling out project management checklists and spreadsheets and Doodle polls, negotiating incredibly complex and lengthy insurance and risk assessment documents and regulations, filing for permits and visas, budgeting and reconciling receipts, and attending to related accounting systems. I had no previous experience of any of this before I started my lectureship, and I am compelled to resist the onslaught of such demands, which are ever-increasing and continuously and unnecessarily more bespoke and invasive. Having the time to actually do research on one’s own research project is elusive, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I have so many great students and colleagues who are willing to collaborate with me and empathise with my circumstances to enable the research to happen. I hope real resistance to such bureaucratic demands takes more obvious shape soon, as these demands (as testified to by many scholars – Bregman, Graeber, etc.) are a genuine threat to innovation, constructive change and revolutionary scholarship.
  1. Take people management seriously and invest time in developing your public leadership skills. I feel this is a point that should be compulsorily taught in all PhD, undergrad and Masters programmes. If you work in archaeology or heritage or the cultural sector in general, to succeed you must be proficient at collaborating with very many people, many of whom have different interests, some of whom work at obvious cross-purposes. This is a fact. That this fact is not nurtured and engrained in every student from the moment they begin their studies seems a tremendous weakness of the profession. When you start to lead your own projects, you quickly become aware of just how important it is to be good at caring for others, resolving tensions between others, enabling productive communication and sharing between others.
  1. Have fun with the people you work with. Especially on intensive, field-based projects – but, really, in any circumstance – build in significant time for fun, games, laughing, play, dancing, singing, music and creativity. The benefits are many and obvious. I can genuinely say that I’ve made most of my greatest friendships and (what are sure to be) lifelong human bonds through my projects.

FS3 Graduation
Celebrating the graduation of our 3rd cohort of Memphis Site and Community Development Project trainees in Autumn 2016. Photo by Amel Eweida.
I’m certain there’s more that could be added to this list & I welcome your additions, revisions, and constructive comments!

I’ll conclude by sharing with you the great news that I was promoted to Senior Lecturer last week, and from the end of September I’ll also be modifying my contract at York slightly to enable some exciting new professional developments. More on that to come!

* I’ll elaborate on some of these EMOTIVE projects in forthcoming blog posts. In the meantime, please join our mailing list, follow us on Twitter or Facebook, and see what my brilliant colleagues at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow are doing in terms of their own boundary-pushing emotive work.

** There’s a lot more to be said on this point, but it goes beyond the brief of this post!