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Students and instructors at an archaeological field school in St. Croix forge ties for the future as they learn.

M. CANTWELL/SCIENCE

Fed-up archaeologists aim to fix ‘frat party’ atmosphere at field schools

Each year, archaeologist Carol Colaninno guides undergraduates through a consequential choice: Where should they go to field school? Every budding U.S. archaeologist must attend one to learn hands-on skills such as excavation, and to have any hope of landing a job or entering grad school for archaeology.

The undergrads can choose from hundreds of field schools, many in remote areas. But Colaninno, who teaches at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, knows from former students and information passed privately among others in her whisper network that some field schools have a reputation for faculty who sexually harass with impunity. Many schools are also famed for heavy drinking.

Traditional field schools foster “the archaeology cowboy mentality … working really hard during the day but playing really hard at night—and drinking a ton,” says Katrina Eichner, an archaeologist at the University of Idaho. If directors of these field schools encourage that atmosphere, she adds, “it devolves into a frat party.” Over time, that cowboy culture gets perpetuated across academic generations.

Now, Colaninno, Eichner, and other archaeologists are trying to change the script. With the help of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Colaninno is studying, and plans to implement, best practices for preventing sexual harassment at field schools. And some archaeologists, aware that remote summer courses can cost thousands of dollars and keep students of modest means out of the field altogether, are rethinking the whole model: They teach field skills at local sites during the regular semester. “We don’t have to create the same environment that we didn’t want to be in when we were students,” says Jane Eva Baxter, an archaeologist at DePaul University and the author of a respected guide for field school instructors.

Although field schools are on hold this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say it’s more important than ever for academic archaeologists to take the lead in making such schools safe. New regulations under Title IX, the U.S. federal law governing sexual harassment in higher education, no longer require universities to investigate incidents that happen in their programs abroad.

Although anecdotes of sexual harassment in field schools are plentiful, data on such episodes are limited. But studies show they are common in archaeology, as they are in other field-based disciplines. In a survey by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, 68% of 244 respondents of all genders reported inappropriate remarks in the field; another 13% reported unwanted sexual contact. Remote sites and field schools have been considered “an alternative space where different rules applied,” Baxter says.

The current culture at such sites and schools may drive some students out of the profession, according to a paper published last month in American Anthropologist. An atmosphere of informality, including frequent drinking, undermined expectations of professionalism and excluded people who weren’t willing or able to navigate the unspoken rules, according to the paper’s analysis of archaeological field sites and an anonymous field school in Chile. “It weeds out people,” says author Mary Leighton, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “The people who love it, stay [in archaeology]. And the people who don’t like it leave.”

To create a more welcoming and professional culture, Colaninno’s team recently offered recommendations from the first phase of its research. The suggestions include: Create an environment that doesn’t trivialize harassment, offer multiple ways to report harassment other than going to the field director, and reflect weekly on what’s working and what isn’t. The team, which published its guidance in May in Advances in Archaeological Practice, plans to implement those policies at eight U.S. field schools as part of its NSF-funded project, and study outcomes over 2 years.

In April, a study in Advances in Archaeological Practice addressed another way field schools weed out students: cost. Among more than 200 field schools, the average cost for 4 weeks was just over $4000, not including airfare, the study found. Field school also interferes with summer jobs.

Archaeologists need to “think of ways to train students that are more in line with the realities of their lives,” Baxter says. Her department no longer requires anthropology majors to attend a summer field school. Instead, they take a field methods course that runs 1 day per week during the school year.

Similarly, for three recent semesters, Sarah Rowe, an archaeologist at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, ran a class that trained students in archaeological survey, data collection, and community engagement as they investigated their county’s public cemetery. She also runs a field school in Ecuador, which offers several weeks of immersive training in excavation. “We need to focus on a constellation of options” for training students, she says.

Well-managed, immersive field schools can build powerful and lasting bonds, says Sara Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. She co-directs a field school with the Historic Preservation Office of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon on their reservation. “It’s an opportunity for students to learn directly from the tribe how to do archaeology.” The school prohibits alcohol and emphasizes inclusivity and respect. Each summer begins with discussions of what students are most excited about—and most afraid of. Together, the team comes up with principles to “minimize those fears and maximize that excitement,” Gonzalez says.

To boost access to archaeology, Eichner found grant funding so that students at the Texas field school she ran paid only for room and board. She also surveyed students so she could accommodate diverse gender identities, disabilities, and more. She estimates that 20% to 30% of students belonged to the LGBTQ+ community. “This is not extra work,” she says. “This is the work.”

Justin Dunnavant of Vanderbilt University, co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists, is particularly aware of how field schools shape the culture of his discipline. The society interviewed established Black archaeologists and found that attending field school together had helped them forge a strong, supportive community in a majority white discipline. (Just 0.3% of members of the Society for American Archaeology are Black, according to a 2015 survey.) “If we’re going to seriously build out a pipeline of Black archaeologists, we need to have a field school that is racially diverse and supportive,” Dunnavant says.

He keeps that in mind at the field school he co-directs, where students help study the lives of enslaved Africans on a former plantation on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A grant covers the costs of students from historically Black colleges and universities and pays them a stipend. The team could excavate faster if it focused less on training, Dunnavant says. But sprinting for results is not his goal. “If we’re not actually building capacity for people to take over in these spaces and beyond, it’s going to be a very short-term gain.”