Writing practical or laboratory reports in archaeology
Some of the IoA’s archaeological science modules (e.g. Applications of Archaeological Science, Archaeobotany, Human Remains, Geoarchaeology) include a Laboratory or Practical Report as one of the assessments. While you should always pay close attention to the requirements of the specific module assessment question, there are some general skills which are useful in writing Lab or Practical reports.
Lab reports often focus on making observations about groups of materials, such as soils, metal objects, bones, ceramics, plant remains and many other types of finds, whether archaeological or modern (such as in experimental archaeology). Whatever branch of archaeological science you are studying, lab reports usually follow the same structure.
As with essays, they need a clear introduction outlining the aims of the experiment or lab activity or exercise. What are you aiming to find out? What research question does the exercise aim to answer, and what broader context does it fit into? This might be phrased in terms of previous research or a mini-literature review, whatever the assessment guidelines ask for.
Some archaeological science reports phrase their main research question as either a hypothesis, which is a supposition based on limited evidence, as a starting point for your investigation or a null hypothesis which might predict there is no difference between two phenomena or types of material (eg. between periods or areas). Both set up an expectation to be tested.
You normally need to describe your materials and methods. The materials section should describe what is being studied, tested or observed. Where are the objects from (whether from a modern collection or archaeological)? What is their provenance, and what date are they (and how have they been dated)? In some cases, it might be relevant to outline how they were retrieved archaeologically. How many samples are there? Are they sufficient for the exercise?
A methods section should describe clearly exactly what approaches you’ll take to testing, identifying, observing, or quantifying your material. How have these methods been developed? Are they taken from existing literature (in which case reference them properly) or have you developed methods yourself? Illustrating methods can be helpful, e.g. showing which templates you’ve used to classify objects or making identifications.
Results should be clearly presented, and often the best way to do that is via Tables or Figures. The best science reports present both the raw data and analysed data, distinguishing clearly between the two. The type of graphs used should be well chosen to display your results most clearly. All tables and graphs/figures should be numbered and accompanied by informative captions (describing what is being shown). Try to keep the results section as descriptive as possible, using appropriate methods of quantification and statistics where relevant. You can point out trends and patterns, but reserve interpretation for the discussion section.
The discussion section should link your results to the initial research aims. Do they confirm to the hypothesis or not (if you used that device)? What do your results provide evidence for? What inferences can be made? How robust are the results? Are there limitations with sample sizes or methods, which need mentioning? In assessments, credit is given to good understanding of the problems and potentials of experiments and tests.
In many ways, practical and laboratory reports use the same skills as essay writing (in terms of clarity of expression, logical argumentation, appropriate referencing) but they also require the distinct structure described above, and clear and precise ways of presenting methods and data and describing trends using quantitative approaches. Remember, good science means that another person should be able to follow your lab exercise precisely from your report – and repeat it and get the same results!