James MacDonell is a recent NAS member who has taken advantage of our online courses whilst in limbo between university degrees. Here he describes his weekend re-learning how to write reports.

Having just recently finished my undergraduate degree in Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Southampton, I found myself at an odd impasse when lockdown came into effect. Instead of spending the summer surveying, excavating and generally gaining as much archaeological experience as possible before I start my masters in Maritime Archaeology at Southampton this September, I actually found myself locked down in London 25 miles from the nearest coastline.

A photo of myself (right) and Ed, one of my course mates, (left) standing in the pit we had helped to excavate during our first-year training fieldwork as part of the Old Sarum Landscape Project. I had hoped to spend this summer continuing to expand my fieldwork skills prior to the Covid-19 situation, but luckily with the NAS online learning courses it’s still possible to learn and expand my knowledge from the comfort of home.


Luckily for me the NAS had transitioned what were previously face-to-face courses into a seamless online experience. And for an undergrad who had most likely taken one too many history modules during his degree, a course in how to write archaeological reports was just the refresher I needed before my masters.

We began with a brief virtual round the table introduction which was when I first got the sense of how widespread the need for report writing is within the field. Field archaeologists, academics, those who work in the heritage sector and many amateur archaeologists tuned in, not only from the UK but from many different time zones as well. The brief 15-minute introduction into why we need reports from Mark Beattie-Edwards made me realise that there was a whole lot more to report writing than the strictly academic context I was used to.

At the start of the course we were provided by Mark with an in depth, easy to follow structure to report writing, something I now realise may not have been as clear in some of my earlier undergraduate work (apologies to my lecturers!). Even the elements of report writing that I thought I already had a fairly decent grasp of were fleshed out a lot more. For example, I had been referencing my work for the past 3 years, yet I had never seriously given much thought to the copywrite laws surrounding commercial reports, since all my work had only ever been for educational purposes.


A slide from the introductory presentation by Mark Beattie-Edwards on why we need to write reports. One thing that personally stood out to me is the need for reports to be good to look at. All the reports I had written previously had focussed mainly on ticking boxes within a mark scheme, yet now I better understand the many other uses for reports where presentation is as important as content.


As well as the practical elements of report writing the invaluable collective experience of the presenters really helped me to understand why report writing is such an invaluable skillset for archaeologists. Presentations from Alison James from MSDS Marine were incredibly insightful into how reports can be tailored for multiple uses, whether it’s to report to an overarching organisational body, secure funding for further fieldwork or as a write up intended for public distribution. On the other hand, Miranda Richardson’s presentation and insight as editor for the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology showed how reports play an invaluable role in academia as a tool for sharing new findings but also promoting discussion amongst peers. While the overall structure may be very similar, it was fascinating to see how the conventions vary. I for one had never considered the use of paragraph numbers before, but to hear from Alison about how hard it can be to refer to a certain paragraph from an incredibly long report via email was incredibly useful. Whereas, hearing about the conventions, the process and the common mistakes that make editors groan in frustration involved in writing a report for publication from Miranda was equally as insightful.

Two things that before were only a vague long-term aspiration of mine, a professional report and a report published in a journal, no longer seemed quite so daunting as before. It no longer felt like an impossible task but as an achievable goal to work towards. I felt for the first time that with enough guidance, practice and hard work I could reach such a level of professionalism for myself. I went into this course hoping to brush up my skills in report writing as I enter my masters year and left it with a clearer understanding of how I can continue to develop the skills I have learnt as a student with a much clearer understanding of where these developing skills could eventually lead me.


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