Field Notes

Have you ever sat down and thought about how and where archaeologists record all that information they observe on site and what happens to those records after they’re done? Actually… you probably haven’t, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Most of the information recorded on site is collected as field notes. Field notes and field books contain the raw data collected in the field, and are the legacies of archaeological excavation. Archaeologists refer to these notes when writing reports and making observations on different features and sites. To some extent, they are a daily diary that records the results of excavations, surveys and other forms of archaeological monitoring and contain the initial interpretations and other general observations made in the field. Field notes can include data collected on preprinted forms, details scrawled in notebooks, frantic sketches on scrap paper, hurriedly typed notes in work phones or beautiful carefully drawn scale diagrams on graph .

An example of a scale diagram drawn on site. This one is a plan view of a brick barrel drain.

A quick Google of archaeological field notes will bring up numerous images of pages scanned from various field books all around the world. These are often immaculate examples of perfectly drawn diagrams or beautifully calligraphed notes that look like they are straight off someone’s Pinterest inspiration board and proudly displayed as a part of an archaeological exhibit. The reality of field notes is that they are much more varied and not necessarily pretty. Not every writer in the field records information in a way that you would expect them to as the Smithsonian Institution Archives identified during their Field Book Project. Lockshin and Benett (2018) observed; “Aside from hoarding and creative reuse of material, another strategy of the thrifty writer that may create media legibility issues is the technique of cross writing, self-annotating, and/or use of the field book in reverse orientation from back to front, which can cause headaches for the most attentive user trying to work out the beginning from the end”. I can even think of examples where I have written around the edge or upside down in the corner of a page to further articulate a point while running out of .

A creative use of space by this archaeologist, with their notes encasing their sketch map.

While in this form, the archaeologists utilises both portrait and landscape views to maximise space.

Scribbles in a notebook from a slow day on site. Pages like these provide an insight into the mind of the archaeologist and what the fieldwork was like on that day.

Every archaeologist will, at some point, work with someone else’s field notes. In fact, while I was procrastinating writing my MA thesis in 2021, I went on a bit of a deep dive into numerous papers on the subject. These either lamented or celebrated how legacies of ‘historic’ fieldnotes are used in archaeology and what sorts of information they can add to future research studies. It was slightly (mostly) off-topic… but I’m sure it gave me a broad background perspective and certainly mentally prepared me for working as an archaeologist. One of the papers even interviewed various archaeologists’ regarding their experiences working with other people’s field notes and what they wished their co-workers had included instead (Faniel et al., 2013). However, the most interesting of these studies focused on how re-examinations of original field notes have the potential to highlight assumptions that underpin how archaeological data is interpreted to this day at even some of the most prominent sites across the world (e.g. Ellis, S.J.R. (2008), Ellis et al., (2008), Boozer (2015), MacFarland and Vokes (2016) and Wylie (2017)).

I personally argue that the field notes themselves should always be considered an important part of the archaeological legacy collections. ‘Published’ archaeological writing often conceals the inconsistencies of archaeology by erasing the ambiguities characteristic of tangible archaeological evidence (Gero, 2007). The field notes help highlight the ambiguities so that we can account for them in future interpretations. They provide all of the non-artefactual information recorded about archaeological sites which have been reduced, or destroyed outside of a published report.

“no idea what else this might be – definitely not a soak pit”

Most of the ‘historic’ field notes housed in the Underground Overground Archaeology (UOA) office are contained within the yellow, Rite in the Rain ALL WEATHER METRIC FIELD No 360F hardback notebooks. These notebooks are celebrated for their near indestructibility, especially in wet weather, and have been used for field research in many areas since the early 20th century.  The UOA collection is housed on a shared bookshelf with the date and the initials of the notetaker recorded on the spine.

The archived yellow field books.

Notes in these journals range from journal-like diary entries to bullet-pointed notes and annotated sketches.

An example of field notes written with bullet-pointed notes.

An example of field notes written in ‘journal’ style with drawings and a torn page.

Another example of field notes written in full in a ‘journal’ style.

For larger projects, field notes have been recorded on forms. These are meant to provide reliability in how the information about archaeology is recorded in the field. Forms achieve this by prompting archaeologists to record key attributes about the feature in the interest of ensuring nothing is accidently forgotten. They also offer a clear structure and consistent terms that should (in theory) make writing archaeological report simpler.

Forms such as context, bag and photo registers also assist in the handover of information between archaeologist on site as they allow for information to be quickly summarised at the end of each day. Yet even forms experience somewhat interpretative use, and everyone still finds ways to make them their own.

An example of a context register that helps different archaeologists to know what was last recorded on site.

A blank context record form example.

The environment can also play a role in the legibility of notes, whether that be from trying to write with near frozen fingers on a freezing winter morning or water and dirt covering pages on a particularly muddy site.

An abused field book – the realities of working on site.

A bonus examples with various drawings. This shows a general (not to scale) plan of a project area.

Here at Underground Overground Archaeology, field notes are digitised before the physical copies (either in the form of Yellow Field Books, or binders full of paper forms) are archived for future inspection within our office as part of an ever-growing internal library. Collections of archaeological field notes exist in thousands of repositories worldwide with the intention that they will be able to provide data for and add valuable information to current and future archaeological and heritage studies. They provide data for a critical examination of commonly held assumptions about the past drawn from past research. They are unique, vibrant, (sometimes nearly illegible), windows into the minds of individual archaeologists providing information about their thoughts and processes on site alongside essential insights about the archaeology. Archaeological data is messy, and a strong understanding of the original assumptions and goals of the research that produced an assemblage is often required to critically apply it to new research. Relevant documents that clarify how the archaeological material and artefacts were initially collected are needed to address this meaningfully. I hope this blog encourages you to love field notes as much as I do.

Amy Tuffnell

All fieldnote examples contained within this blog are sources from within the Underground Overground Archaeology internal archive. I would like to thank everyone from the office for the suggestions and contributions.


Boozer, A. L. (2014). The tyranny of typologies: evidential reasoning in Romano-Egyptian domestic archaeology. In Material evidence (pp. 112-130). Routledge.

Ellis, S. J. (2008). The use and misuse of ‘legacy data’ in identifying a typology of retail outlets at Pompeii’. Internet Archaeology, 24: 450-457.

Ellis, S. J., Gregory, T. E., Poehler, E. E., & Cole, K. (2008). Integrating legacy data into a new method for studying architecture: a case study from Isthmia, Greece. Internet Archaeology: 24.

Faniel, I., Kansa, E., Whitcher Kansa, S., Barrera-Gomez, J., & Yakel, E. (2013). The challenges of digging data: a study of context in archaeological data reuse. In Proceedings of the 13th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital libraries, (pp.295-304).

Lockshin, Nora S. and Bennett, R. William, III. (2018). Smudges, Snakeskins, and Pins, Oh My!Book and Paper Group Annual. 37:125–142.

MacFarland, K., & Vokes, A. W. (2016). Dusting Off the Data: Curating and Rehabilitating Archaeological Legacy and Orphaned Collections. Advances in Archaeological Practice, 4(2), 161-175.

Rite in the Rain – History, 2023 September 14,

Wylie, A. (2016). How Archaeological Evidence Bites Back: Strategies for Putting Old Data to Work in New Ways. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 42(2), 203-225.