E. B. Banning

 Writing Archaeological Essays and Theses

Introduction Planning Sources Evidence Style Plagiarism Links In Progress


What follows are some of my personal tips on how to write better academic essays. I also recommend that you buy a guide to good writing, of which a classic (and brief) one is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Some other ones you might find useful include:

Zinsser, W. K., 1998. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

You should also check the University of Toronto's Advice on Academic Writing on the web.

There are also many other web sites with advice about writing, including DuPage Anthropology Writing.


 Planning and Organizing Your Paper

Whether your paper is based on new, original research or on library research, planning and organization are critical to making your point. Among the first steps are selecting and focussing your topic and collecting information.

  • Define your topic carefully and try to limit it to something you can do completely in a short paper
  • Collect a complete bibliography consisting of original sources (i.e., articles and books written by the people who did the research, NOT encyclopedias, textbooks, or the like)
  • Read your sources, or those parts of them that are relevant to your research topic, and try to organize a set of notes from the sources
  • Concentrate on information and arguments that directly support or contradict some hypothesis of interest, and don't waste time on material that is not relevant
  • Discuss any major controversies in the literature, and try to evaluate competing hypotheses, or propose one of your own. Do the authors' statements make sense? If you don't think they do, back up your own argument with information (don't just offer an unsubstantiated opinion)
  • A brief introduction in the Handbook of Technical Writing, by C. Brusaw, G. Alred and W. Oliu (St. Martin's Press, New York) describes some basic steps to get your paper started.
  • Preparation involves establishing your objective and determining the paper's scope.
  • Research involves note-taking and conducting library research.
  • Organization: "To provide effective organization," Brusaw et al. write, "you must determine the sequence in which your ideas should be presented." They suggest various strategies of organization and recommend outlining as a way to get it all straight. Common strategies in archaeological papers involve comparing two theories, two sites, or two regions, or arguing for particular cause-and-effect relationships on the basis of evidence. A possible alternative or supplement to outlining could be a flow chart that helps you organize the argument you want to make in the paper. Spending some time on organization will reduce the risk that you will repeat yourself or present a very disjointed, confusing argument.
  • Then comes writing a draft and revising it to produce a final copy. I highly recommend that you write a first draft and have a friend read it to suggest ways you might improve its organization or style. It may be better if the friend does not know the topic; if your friend can't understand what point you're trying to make, probably I won't either.

Make sure your paper begins with an introduction that tells me, in general, what your paper's topic and objectives are. Sometimes it is good to describe the paper's scope or organization (although usually only for longer papers), to make it easier for me to follow your argument. An introduction should not be confused with an abstract, which is a short summary of the paper (some journal formats require this).

Also make sure that each paragraph develops a particular idea and that it has a topic sentence that introduces or summarizes the idea. Paragraphs are not merely bunches of sentences strung together. The body of the paragraph should support the statement in the topic sentence (usually the first or second sentence). Occasionally the topic sentence is at the end, for emphasis, and acts as a summary or conclustion for the paragraph instead of an introduction. The easiest way to make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence is to build your paper up from an outline; the individual points on yhour outline provide the topic sentences, and you then build on them to fill out the paragraphs.

Don't pad your paper with unnecessary material that contributes nothing to the topic you've outlined in your introduction. I would much prefer a short, concise paper to one that is padded with irrelevant asides.

The paper should end with a genuine conclusion. This should at least summarize the main points of your paper, but is more effective if it also offers a judgement (on the relative merits of two competing hypotheses, for example), makes a prediction or recommendation, or points out the implications of your paper's results. The conclusion should not contain any new topics that the body of your paper does not address.

Sources: Libraries and Internet

Be careful to narrow your research topic to the point that you can deal with the amount of literature available. Once you have done this you can often use journal indices to find relevant articles quickly.

You may find it useful to consult specialized libraries or bibliographic services. For example, some archaeological topics can benefit from information found in the Botany, Zoology, or Architecture libraries.

For some specialized archaeological topics, there are also journals in other disciplines that may have relevant articles. For example, a paper on ancient architecture or town planning might benefit from some research in a source such as Journal of Urban History.

Searching for Bibliography: There are several ways you can start your search for relevant sources. Today an internet search using a good search engine like Google can sometimes find you some bibliographic lists. UTCat has fairly good keyword searches that will help you find relevant books in its collections, as well as journals and ejournals. You can also check the bibliographies of recent textbooks or large, summary articles. Some journals have indices or publish a lot of book reviews or book abstracts. For most kinds of archaeological papers, the best sources are site reports and fairly recent journal articles. You should be able to find any useful books cited in the bibliographies of recent journal articles. But very general books (except the site reports) are often not the best sources because they can be very general, simplified, or out-of-date. Furthermore, you probably won't have time to read whole books. Try to make economical use of your time by reading recent articles, using their bibliographies to zero in on the most useful books and older articles, and using the index to find those parts of any books you use that will give you the information you need.

When you look for journal articles, don't restrict yourself to archaeology journals, even though there are many of those that will prove useful. Many non-archaeological journals have information of interest to archaeologists (but be careful not to get side-tracked by interesting articles that aren't pertinent to your topic - you can't afford the time).

The internet is good for finding bibliography, but other information on web pages is of very inconsistent quality. Some of what you'll find is just plain wrong or very out-of-date, as there are no controls over who puts what on the internet. In many ways that's good, but you have to accept that some of what gets posted is simply rubbish. So use the internet as a cautious consumer, mainly just to find sources in "peer-reviewed" publications. Google now has "Google Scholar," which only searches scholarly pages, such as those of academic journals.

In addition, you need to beware the temptation to cut-and-paste information from web sites. Even if you intend to edit such text later or add quotation marks and a citation, often students either forget to do this, or don't edit the text sufficiently for it to constitute their own words, and the result can be plagiarism (see below). It is much better (and safer!) simply to take notes from web sites to provide information (not wording) that you will use later to write your own text. If you do want to quote some wording, make sure you keep track of its source right from the start, so you can cite it correctly.

Selecting and Using Information

Don't believe everything you read. Actively search for opposing opinions or alternative hypotheses in the literature or propose some of your own. Evaluate the various hypotheses by reference to evidence in site reports or other sources, and by using common sense. You will find that authors are human and occasionally say things that make no sense at all.

When presenting your evidence, you may sometimes find it useful to use tables, diagrams, graphs, or maps. Often graphs are better ways to communicate data than are tables, especially when there's a lot of data, because the reader gets a good visual summary of what's going on. A good source of advice on the use of graphs is E. R. Tufte's (1983) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Always use original sources when citing your evidence. Do NOT use secondary sources, such as textbooks, encyclopedias or general overviews, as their information has been filtered and processed and may be out of date or even misleading if the authors are trying to sell their favourite theories. So if, for example, you want to use some particular find to support your argument, cite the archaeologist who actually found it (i.e., the original site report), not someone who never even saw it. Do not use newspapers and popular magazines as sources unless your topic is an analysis of the public perception or presentation of some archaeological phenomenon.

Archaeological journals that you may find useful include Antiquity, American Antiquity, Journal of Archaeological Science, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Field Archaeology, European Journal of Archaeology, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Archaeometry, and Canadian Journal of Archaeology. There are many others available at Robarts Library and through myLibrary. These all present results of original research by the authors, rather than secondary summaries of other people's research.

 Style and Presentation

You would do well to look at the Chicago Manual of Style or a similar guide to essay-writing and typing, to get some guidance on how to present your paper.

For overall format and references, I ask you to use Social-Science format, such as one of the formats you will find in the journals, Antiquity, American Antiquity, Journal of Archaeological Science, or the more recent issues of Journal of Field Archaeology. What these formats have in common is citing sources with the author and year in parentheses in the text, such as (Binford 1968) or (Binford, 1968), which then refers to the full reference in the bibliography at the end.

Your paper should be double-spaced, neat, and legible. In fact it is always in your interest to give your instructors (not just me) papers that are well organized and easy to read. Eye-strain or really sloppy writing could cause the instructor to get grouchy. Books like Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) can give you advice on how to make your paper look more professional.

Some Tips on Things to Avoid or Ensure

The following are some common problems that occur frequently in papers I have to read, and most are things you should avoid. Others are things you should just be careful to use properly. You might call these my pet peeves.

  • Avoid the passive voice: "The archaeologist found the artifact" is active and usually better than "the artifact was found by the archaeologist." Passive voice is not wrong but, unless you have good reason for using it, it is more wordy and its overuse leads to boring prose
  • Ask yourself what is the subject of each sentence you're using. If it's a plural (such as "they"), make sure that the verb is plural too (that's called agreement in number). The same goes for singular. In addition, if it's a pronoun, such as "she" or "they," make sure your reader can figure out which person or thing the pronoun represents (that's called an "antecedent"). Sometimes students put a sentence in a paragraph that refers to some antecedent that doesn't exist; this leads to extremely confused writing.
  • Avoid making general statements or conclusions that you do not support with sources. You should attribute any summary statements to their sources with citations (even quotations in some cases).
  • Avoid unnecessary jargon or "buzz-words." Sometimes special terminology is necessary to convey an idea accurately, but most of the time ordinary, day-to-day vocabulary is perfectly adequate. Why use a multisyllabic word, such as "utilization," when a perfectly adequate one-syllable one ("use") is available? (Incidentally, "usage" is a term properly used to describe the way words, not artifacts, are used).
  • Avoid ambivalent or condescending words. Don't use "obviously," "clearly," "certainly," "seems," "apparently," or "I feel," unless absolutely necessary. It is better to pick your level of doubt and say something like "I infer from this," or "the evidence from such-and-such site suggests that..." Don't insult your reader's intelligence.
  • Avoid overuse or misuse of "therefore" and "prove." These words are parts of logical arguments, and properly have a restricted usage. "Therefore" is properly used to mark the beginning of a deduction from preceding statements (for example, "layer A is younger than layer B, and layer B is younger than layer C. Therefore, layer A is younger than layer C"). It is not proper to use "prove" when there is neither evidence nor logical argument to back up a statement.
  • Remember that somebody or something can "imply" some something without stating it directly, but that you "infer" a conclusion from statements or evidence. A deduction, for example, is an inference. Most students get this backwards.
  • Avoid superlatives and inflated or grandiose adjectives. Use "very" only sparingly, and don't waste your reader's time on "countless," "innumerable," or "infinite" (rarely is it truly impossible to count archaeological objects)
  • Commas are not for decoration. Do not decorate your sentences with them. Nor are they to tell your reader when to breathe. Use them where they help your reader understand the sentence, usually by breaking longer sentences into groups of words ("phrases"), each group carrying out a distinct function. Note in the previous point, for example, how the commas separate out the phrase "which occur at this site." It might help you to think of the commas as being similar to parentheses, as indeed they often appear in pairs to mark the beginning and end of some phrase that's inserted into a sentence. If you write in short, straightforward sentences, you will have less need for commas.
  • Keep it simple and concise. Verbosity does not impress me.

Some "Confusibles"

Try not to confuse things like the following:

  • Avoid confusing "effect" and "affect," "alternate" and "alternative," "insure" and "ensure," "complement" and "compliment," "discrete" and "discreet," "mitigate" and "militate," etc. If this is a typical problem for you, try looking over Room's Dictionary of Confusibles or just make sure you consult a dictionary. Come up with strategies that help you remember the difference (e.g., "complement" has the same root as "supplement," while "insure" has to do with buying insurance).
  • Make sure you know the difference between "its" and "it's." At least half of the students I encounter seem to get this wrong. "Its" is a possessive ("belonging to it"), while "it's" is an abbreviation ("contraction") for "it is."
  • Another common mistake is to use "between" for "among." Relationships exist between two things, but among three or more things. "Amongst," incidentally, is nowadays rather archaic, so I wouldn't recommend using it
  • Also learn the distinction between "that" and "which." Strunk & White explain this quite well. For example, if you say "Potsherds that occur at this site have incised decoration," you are only making a claim about the sherds from this particular site, not about any pottery from other sites. If, on the other hand, you say, "Potsherds, which occur at this site, have incised decoration," this means that ALL potsherds have incised decoration, not just the ones from this site. Almost certainly, that's not what you mean to say.
  • "allow" means "permit" but "allow for" means considering the factors that would affect a plan, decision, or judgment

Plagiarism is a very serious academic offence, and thus has serious consequences. In a way it's a kind of fraud, as you are representing something as yours when it is not. Sometimes students who are rushed and feeling desperate are tempted to "borrow" words from some other author without crediting the author, or even to present most or all of someone else's essay as their own. When they are caught, they are subject to academic discipline, which could include expulsion.

A common version of this kind of plagiarism results, either intentionally or accidentally, when students use the "cut-and-paste" method for constructing a paper. This is poor practice and, even if you think you have changed some wording here and there so that it's not identical to the original source, it does not constitute your own writing and, depending on how closely the final text resembles the source or sources, could constitute plagiarism.

Even if you do credit your sources, a paper made up of a whole bunch of quotations strung together is NOT your work. I'm interested in YOUR ideas and arguments, so use direct quotations only sparingly when it really helps to make your point. In a way the quotations are like pieces of evidence or testimony, but not a replacement for your own words.

It is also quite unecessary if you can organize yourself to start on your essay early enough, to document where you got your information, and to cite it properly in your paper.

A related issue is the unauthorized use of copyrighted images. Now it is easy to download images from the internet, but many of such images are the property of their artists, and should not be used without permission. Sometimes an easy solution, in cases where you want to use the image on a web page, is simply to link to it on the author's web site, rather than downloading it. To use the images in a course paper, however, you should email the source and ask for permission.

Some internet sources you can look at for tips on how to avoid plagiarism include DuPage Anthropology Writing, and Indiana Writing Resources.

For information on how to cite sources, and especially internet sources, see http://www.apastyle.org/elecref.html.


© E. B. Banning 2002-2005, all rights reserved.