Fieldwork as a costs / benefits analysis

It always seems to me that palaeontological fieldwork consists of a series of a constant stream of decisions that mirror classic cost-benefit analyses. While this is true of many jobs and many things in life, I don’t think I have ever quite experienced anything like it. Unless you have a huge amount of time, or resources, or both, you constantly have to make decisions based on relatively little information and constantly reappraise previous decisions as the situation changes.


You typically have only a limited amount of time in the field and have a lot to pack in, but things can often take a lot of time for little reward. You can’t waste hours on rubbish, but then you don’t want to miss something good or break something special because you have to rush. You often can’t even tell what it is you might be extracting and of course you certainly don’t know what else is out there – you might skip the best thing you will find that day because it’s still only 8 am and you don’t want to spend all morning looking at one patch of ground. If it’s a poor site then that one partial tooth might be a great find, if it’s an amazing site that partial skull might not even be worth picking up, let alone the time to mark, photograph and excavate it.

drillDo you have time to prospect this patch properly? Where else can we go? Can we come back here later if it looks good? Is it worth climbing that hill when there might not be an exposure on the top? Halfway up it’s a trickier climb than you thought, keep going or go back? There are a few patches of bone on the surface, which looks best? This is in reasonable condition but is there more underneath? Can you afford an hour or two to check it in detail avoid any damage? As you start to clear the matrix away does it look better or worse? Does it go deep into the rock and if so, can you take it out in one go without serious damage or is it worth the risk? Is it even worth collecting at all? Is it from something new or something common? Is it going to survive the journey back even if you get it out successfully? Is it in good condition or poor? Might there be better stuff underneath? If there is can if be extracted easily? If not can we make a jacket? How big will it have to be? Where does the specimen likely end? Do we have the time to expose it all or do we have to dig and hope? Do we have the materials to make a big jacket? Can we lift it or get it to the vehicles even if we can make it?

All of this kind of thing crops up pretty much every few minutes if not seconds at various points in a field campaign and you might have either very little information to go on (you just can’t tell what’s over the next hill or where the bones might go into the rock) or even none at all (do we even have any plaster in the 4×4?), and help or advice if often unavailable if your nearest colleague is prospecting ‘somewhere over there-ish’. What this means in practical terms is that you can spend absolute ages carefully chipping out a small piece of bone (or root, or plaster or something else https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2008/08/24/a-list-of-things-that-looked-like-fossil-bone-from-a-distance-but-on-closer-examination-turned-out-not-to-be/) that you thought was important and turned out to be useless, or (often unknowingly) skimp on things that were important and ignore them or rush and make a hash of it. It happens and only experience and luck can really rescue you and I’m definitely lacking in the former and have not seen much of the latter yet. Still, in theory I can get at least one of them with time once my lucky rabbit’s foot comes through the mail…

1 Response to “Fieldwork as a costs / benefits analysis”



  1. 1 Bad luck when digging – taking a chance « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 16/05/2009 at 9:28 am
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