Institute of Archaeology


Writing an essay

How to write an essay in archaeology

Preparing your essay 

The essay title should provide the starting point for essay’s internal structure. Often an essay title contains more than one question, so make sure that you’ve responded to each element of the question.  Try to avoid the temptation of changing the essay question so as to avoid inadvertently answering the wrong question. 

You should include clear ‘signposts’ in your Introduction as to the structure and content of your essay. Each paragraph should deal with a specific and coherent theme that you have already anticipated in your Introduction. Avoid overly short, and overly long paragraphs!

Paragraphs should not be a collection of bullet points but rather consist of a coherent argument or set of arguments (main point, supporting evidence, discussion).Your essay should end with a Conclusion which sums up your points and ideally offers insights into future avenues of enquiry.

Description and Critical Analysis

Try to illustrate your arguments with reference to specific archaeological examples and case-studies, and published sources (using the Harvard citation system). Aim to achieve a good balance between theories, data and analysis. When you are describing different points of view, or one of many hypotheses on an issue, make it clear that you're dealing with a hypothesis or individual scholarly point of view rather than established fact; avoid over generalised accounts or 'potted histories’!  And make sure that you cite the relevant scholarship for each point of view.

Establish a clear chronological and geographical context for the material and arguments that you are discussing. When referring to localised periodisations/ phasing, dynastic or otherwise, or reigns of rulers, corresponding dates should be given on first usage. 

Grammar, syntax and spelling 

Many typos and mistakes in English can be picked up through careful proof reading. Most word processing applications have grammar / spell  checks which whilst not infallible, can be helpful as a first point of correction. Don’t worry too much about ’style’; the most important thing is to get your point across in a clear and concise manner.

Figures and tables 

If you’re using illustrations or tables, they should always be numbered and accompanied by captions. Keep captions brief, and always provide the source, using the Harvard style as in your main text. Avoid overly long citations.

Figures should be informative and illustrative of the points you’re making in the main text, rather than purely decorative.  Thus, they should always be incorporated into your main discussion through appropriate cross referencing. E.g., ‘As demonstrated in Figure 1’.

Read and check! 

Remember to print out drafts frequently; combining hard-copy and on-screen editing can help you to spot errors more efficiently and improve the flow of your writing than through on-screen viewing only.

Writer's block? 

Try speaking out loud if you get stuck.  Some people find it easier to write early drafts by hand.  Remember to take frequent breaks and look after yourself. Seek help with your academic writing if you need it!

Additional guides on essay writing, and ‘commonly misused words’ can be accessed on the IoA Academic Writing Moodle site.