How to Conduct Background Research for a Paper

Where Can You Find the Right Background Information on Archaeology?

State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia
Redmond Barry Reading Room, State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Esch Collection / Getty Images

Background research refers to accessing the collection of previously published and unpublished information about a site, region, or particular topic of interest and it is the first step of all good archaeological investigations, as well as that of all writers of any kind of research paper.

Background research may include some combination of conducting obtaining copies of current topographic maps and aerial photos, obtaining copies of historic maps and plats of the region, and interviewing archaeologists who have conducted work in the area, local landowners and historians, and members of indigenous tribes who may have knowledge about your area.

Once you've chosen a topic for your research, before you log on to a computer and start searching, you need a good set of keywords.  

Picking a Keyword

Keywords that will provide you with the best results are two and three word strings that include specific information. The more you know about the site first, the better you will be to identify a good keyword to find information about it. I suggest you try World History in a Nutshell, or the Glossary of Archaeology to learn more about your topic first, and then graduate to Google if you can't find what you need here.

For example, if you were going to look for information about Pompeii, one of the best known archaeological sites in the world, googling the keyword "Pompeii" will bring 17 million references to a miscellany of sites, some with useful but many more with not-useful information. Further, a lot of them are summaries of information from elsewhere: not what you want for the next part of your research.

If you have looked here you will know that the University of Bradford has been conducting research at Pompeii for the last few years, and, by combining "Pompeii" and "Bradford" in a google search will get you the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii in the first page of results.

University Libraries

What you really need, though, is access to the scientific literature.

A lot of academic papers are locked up by the publishers with exorbitant prices for downloading a single article--US$25-40 is common. If you’re a college student, you should have access to the electronic resources in the university library, which will include free access to that catalog. If you’re a high school student or independent scholar, you may still be able to have use of the library; go talk to the library administration and ask them what’s available for you.

Once you've logged on to the university library, where sdo you try out your new keywords? Of course you can try the university catalog: but I like a less structured approach. While Google Scholar is excellent, it's not really specific to anthropology, and, in my opinion, the best online libraries for archaeology topics are AnthroSource, the ISI Web of Science and JSTOR, although there are many others. Not all university libraries allow free access to these resources for the general public, but it will not hurt to ask.

Historical Society Museums and Libraries

A great source for information on archaeological sites and cultures, particularly during the last few centuries, is the local historical society museum and library. You may find a display of artifacts from a government-sponsored excavation completed during the US federally-funded programs called New Deal Archaeology of the 1930s; or a display of artifacts that are part of a museum exchange project.

You might find books and memoirs of local residents about the history of the area, or even, best of all, a librarian with a voluminous memory. Sadly, many of the historical societies are shutting their facilities because of budget cuts--so if you still have one, be sure to visit this fast-disappearing resource.

State Archaeological Offices

The State Archaeologist Office in each state or province is an excellent source of information about archaeological sites or cultures. If you are a working archaeologist in the state, you can almost certainly obtain access to the records, articles, reports, artifact collections and maps kept at the State Archaeologist office; but these are not always open to the general public. It won't hurt to ask; and many of the records are open to students. The University of Iowa maintains a list of National Association of State Archaeologist Offices.

Oral History Interviews

One often overlooked area of archaeological background research is the oral history interview. Finding people who know about an archaeological culture or site that you are investigating may be as simple as visiting your local historical society, or contacting the Archaeological Institute of America to obtain addresses for retired archaeologists.

Are you interested in a site in or near your home town? Drop in on your local historical society and talk to the librarian. Amateur archaeologists and historians may be an excellent source of information, as might retired archaeologists who have conducted work on a site. Members of the general public who lived in the area, and long time museum directors may recall when investigations took place.

Interested in an exotic culture, far from your home? Contact the local chapter of a professional organization such as the Archaeological Institute of America, the European Archaeological Association, the Canadian Archaeological Association, the Australian Archaeological Association, or other professional association in your home country and see if you can correspond with a professional archaeologist who has conducted work at the site or who has lectured on the culture in the past.

Who knows? An interview might be all you need to make your research paper the best it can be.