Writing for Historical Archaeology – Part 3. Research Articles

Hand charm

As the editor of Historical Archaeology, I see some of the best research in the field come across my desk. It is exciting to see so many areas of interest whether it be research on different regions or exploration of new theories, topics, site types, time periods, or varieties of material culture. While I am indeed lucky and the journal is doing well, there is always room for improvement. So, in this series of blog posts, I have wanted to share a little bit about the process of publishing in Historical Archaeology and invite you all to contribute a research article, technical brief, or book review soon!

Historical Archaeology is among the most prestigious research journals in archaeology and the preeminent journal for research in global historical archaeology. It has been published independently by the Society for Historical Archaeology since 1967. We publish four issues each year, which include two guest-edited thematic issues (click here to learn more about Thematic issues) and two issues consisting of individually contributed articles (click here to learn more about the peer review process).

HA book reviews are published online on the SHA website (https://sha.org/publications/book-reviews/), and they are released twice a year in conjunction with each contributed issue. The journal also publishes essays on SHA award winners and memorial essays for prominent contributors that we have lost over the previous year. Please contact me (shaeditor@gmail.com) if you have an article you would like to submit or contact Julie Schablitsky (JSchablitsky@sha.state.md.us) if you are interested in writing a book review. You can learn more about the journal here: http://www.sha.org/index.php/view/page/journal.

The Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology series started up in 2006. Technical briefs articles are peer-reviewed and published on the SHA website. The Technical Briefs series provides “fast dissemination of shorter specialized technical papers in historical archaeology, maritime archaeology, material culture technology and materials conservation” (from the SHA website). Dr. Ben Ford is the Technical Briefs editor(ben.ford@iup.edu). Please visit the Technical Briefs webpage for more information about the series and how to submit your own work and, of course, to browse through the articles already published in the series: http://www.sha.org/index.php/view/page/technical_briefs.

For authors

All serial publications follow the rules laid out in a Style Guide, which details how manuscripts should prepared in terms of conventions for writing, references, quotations, figures, tables, and other attributes of an article. The SHA Style Guide can be found here: http://www.sha.org/index.php/view/page/for_authors.

While knowing the rules is necessary, most of us have harder time with the stages involved in framing and writing up our findings and ideas into a research article. So, I want to go over in the following some advice and strategies that I have picked up during my career about writing a research article in archaeology.


Writing a research article

The most important part of a research article is the argument. What is the main idea you trying impart? What are trying to convince the reader of in the article? You should be able to explain your argument in a short paragraph.

For example, in a recent article on “hand charms” James Davidson (2014) argues that most archaeological interpretations of these artifacts have mistakenly proposed that they reflect a retention of African spiritual beliefs in the Diaspora. He argues that this interpretation overlooks evidence that these “hands” were part of a set of hook-and-eye fasteners found on low-cost clothing likely purchased by slave owners to provide for their laborers. Thus, the association of the hand artifacts with African American sites is not due to spiritualism but to plantation economics. Similarly, Linda Scott Cummings et al. (2014) argue that by lumping all Chinese household sites as one unit of analysis that we miss essential aspects of the diversity of experiences within these communities. They show that differences in archaeobotanical data recovered from merchant households and tenement buildings indicate both class and occupational differences that are important to understanding the late 19th century Chinese community in San Jose, CA.

But how do you build a good argument? Good arguments in Historical Archaeology (1) make clear connections between material culture and historically and culturally situated people, and (2) present and interpret these data as argumentative evidence to show and explain how people lived and acted, such that the data you discuss are the appropriate result. A good argument thus starts with good data, and, as we all know, good data comes from solid research skills and usually a bit of good luck. Since luck is out of our control, I’d like to talk some about the skills you should demonstrate in a research article to craft a successful argument.

  1. Defining the Research Problem

Research methods in historical archaeology are quite diverse, ranging from geophysical survey to architectural analysis to ceramic decorative pattern studies to oral history to critical race theory and more. Yet, no matter the methods you use or the materials you engage, a good article starts with a compelling research problem. To develop a good problem you need to consider two things. First, how is your research problem connected to a body of literature? And, second, what is the particular contribution of your article? In other words: who actually cares about your research? And what will they find interesting in this piece of work?

A body of literature refers to the work of other researchers in historical archaeology and related fields that have recently and actively contributed to our understanding of a particular area of interest. In the examples above, Davidson is working on problems being examined in African Diaspora archaeology as well as religious studies and plantation history. Cummings et al. are addressing problems in overseas Chinese archaeology, archaeobotanical research, and immigrant and minority communities.

It is essential that you know the particular fields of study to which your work is connected. To establish this understanding, research articles need to include a discussion of the literature of the field or fields where the work belongs. The point of a literature review is to establish your knowledge and expertise in this field and to set up your article as making a unique and important contribution.

To detail your contribution you want to explain what the next step(s) should be for researchers in a given field of study. You should be able to state your contribution like this: “while we indeed know quite a bit about this field of study, we still do not know XXX (or we have been mistaken about XXX), which is the exact area where my research contributes to advancing and deepening our knowledge.” A good way to write about your contribution is to pave a path through related research such that you set the stage for your own work. As you discuss case studies that describe the kind of work being done in the field, make sure you also show how they each in some way point to that specific next step your own work takes.

  1. Implications

Once you have established a good and well-grounded research problem, you need to discuss how you will address the problem you defined for your article. A good way to frame this discussion is to think of a set of implications of the given problem that should be evident in your data. These can be phrased as “if … then” statements and presented as a set of predictions that, if they prove true, will support your argument.

In Davidson’s article, he establishes that if the hand artifacts were charms then they should be found in similar contexts to other spiritual items such as caches buried under floors or in the walls of houses. He shows instead that the hands were recovered in ambiguous spaces such as “cabin floors, chimney rubble, yards/middens, or manor-house crawlspaces—suggestive of acci­dental loss or deliberate (and casual) discard, or, at the very least, not from any recognized formal caches suggestive of intentionality or an elevation of the object above the mundane” (Davidson 2014:20). Similarly, if the hand clasps were charms then there should be mention of the use of such items in the increasingly rich archival record of African American folkways. Rather, he shows that the use of hands in this literatures refers almost exclusively to actual human hands and hand bones rather than metal clasps.

In the article by Cummings et al., they suggest that if there was a uniformity in the overseas Chinese experience in California then the distribution of archaeobotanical remains should be comparable across different site types. They show that this expectation does not hold up. They further suggest that if class differences within the Chinese-American community account for variations in archaeobotanical species representations then there should be a consistency across households of the same class, which they also show does not hold up. This is how they discovered that the occupations of the residents was an additional factor they needed to consider.

  1. Methods

Next you need to discuss your research methods. What is your data and how did you collect it? What research tools were used in the process? Did you encounter any problems that may affect the reliability of your data? It is good idea to reflect on how the implications of your research problem and the methods you used to collect and analyze your data fit together. In addition, in Historical Archaeology, this part of the article will often be the place to review the sites and/or historical and cultural contexts of the materials to be discussed. Do not try to do too much here. No study is expected to universally apply cross-culturally, as the focus in most articles is predominantly on explaining particular discoveries and patterns as examples of broader, yet still historically constrained, cultural norms and debates.

  1. Your findings

The next stage of your article is an examination of your specific findings. This is where you will present in substantial detail the evidence that will support your final argument. Often this involves the use of data tables, graphs, and figures such as maps, historic images, and artifact and excavation illustrations.

The structure of your data exposition should be directly guided by how each set of data fits into your argument. You want this section to accomplish two things: (1) present your data and—once you show us what you found, where, and with what—(2) tell us what your data mean. What do the patterns you have identified tell us about the people who created the sites, deposits, and artifacts you have studied and discussed? Did your predictions hold up? Why or why not?

  1. Discussion and Conclusion

Once the data is presented and explained, you are now ready to state your argument. While your argument has been latent throughout the article, it is worth resisting the urge to spill the beans until you have laid the groundwork by doing a literature review, establishing your contribution, reviewing your methods of data collection and analysis, and detailing the results and your interpretations of the evidence. Building from these steps, your argument is a way to encapsulate all of the work that went into preparing and writing your article. You are then set up not only to review the findings of the paper in the conclusion but to propose ways to extend your argument to new research areas and interests, a helpful clue all researchers like to see!

These steps outline one productive way to organize your writing for a research article, and they reflect the structure of many articles published in Historical Archaeology. However, I do not mean to suggest that all articles published in Historical Archaeology must follow this structure absolutely! There are other ways to write effectively that you might find useful and productive, and I welcome your submissions!

To learn more about writing a research article, please visit these sites:







Cummings, Linda Scott, Barbara L. Voss, Connie Young Yu, Peter Kováčik, Kathryn Puseman, Chad Yost, Ryan Kennedy, and Megan S. Kane

2014       Fan and Tsai: Intracommunity Variation in Plant-Based Food Consumption at the Market Street Chinatown, San Jose, California. Historical Archaeology 48(2): 143-172.

Davidson, James M.

2014       Deconstructing the Myth of the “Hand Charm”: Mundane Clothing Fasteners and Their Curious Transformations into Supernatural Objects. Historical Archaeology 48(2): 18-60.

Image credit: Fist closure from Kingsley Plantation. (Photo by James M. Davidson, 2012.)