LaTeX for Archaeologists: An archaeological catalogue using LaTeX

Like hinted in various Noob posts, our friend the LaTeX Noob once asked for help typesetting her archaeological catalogue using LaTeX. As it sadly happens to me quite often, I totally forgot about this and was reminded by a recent inquiry (don’t be afraid to ask if I forget to post something I once promised!). In this post, I wanted to share the reaons why you should use LaTeX to typeset an image-heavy catalogue and what to take into account when deciding how to implement it in LaTeX.

General PhD typesetting advice

One PhD thesis = 2 outputs

In the post on LaTeX for PhDs, I have already laid out the most common and some more commonly overlooked advice on why you should use LaTeX for typesetting your PhD thesis. An important aspect is that your thesis will likely generate two outpts, the thesis and a book (hopefully). If you “hard-code” everything now, the transition won’t be as smooth as LaTeX would allow for it to be. That’s why I’d recommend using relative values only (so no fixed ones – “3cm” or the like), unless it’s absolutely necessary for some sort of scaling purposes (which I think is unlikely to be the case  for anyone).

Images and text side-by-side

Already convinced? Then let’s look at some specifics of archaeological catalogues. A striking characteristic is that you’ll need to place images and text side-by-side. 

The power of search-and-replace for formatting changes

Another important aspect is that even after you’ve had a million discussions on how to place those images, your advisor will one day decide very suddenly that this was all wrong. The way it looks now is completely inacceptable (but after you make the images bigger by, say 1cm, it’s apparently perfect). You’re glad you used LaTeX because now you can just strategically use search-and-replace to correct the image settings globally. Everything else will reposition itself automatically because hey, LaTeX is pretty awesome after all. No MS Word dying on you or other insurmountable obstacles.

Using includes for sections of your text

Using \include{intro} in your main.tex you can, for example, put your introduction in a separate intro.tex file. If you want to compile only parts of your dissertation now, just comment out the includes to speed up compilation.

Archaeology bib-style

The existance of a dedicated archaeology BibTeX style will make your life easier. However, in order to be able to use its full power, it would be better if you adopt it early, since you’ll need to prepare your .bib in a certain way. If you’re already too advanced in your thesis to change everything you can either try to automate it (maybe you’ll even have a chance using clever search-n-replace – it’s the rock’n’roll of code, after all 😉 ) or you can just use the .bib style as is because it’s actually pretty awesome even without all the features.

Specificities to take into account for typesetting an archaeological catalogue

We’ve already established that typesetting text and images side-by-side is the main feature of our catalogue. With this decision, LaTeX has no clear answer: There are many ways to reach that goal most of which are explained in Floating minipages and other wizardry (minipage, wrapfigure, tabular, not explained are, as far as I can see some other possible options such as paracol). In the end, this decision depends on which features are most important to you because these different environments all have some specific pros and cons. But let me start to explain the most important one of those features on the example of minipage:

Relative vs. absolute positioning

Minipage is for just what the name says: A mini (!) page as part of a bigger page. Like a normal tabular, it doesn’t break at page break, so you want it as small as possible. But with a whole catalogue, you’ll likely end up with awkward gaps due to minipages not breaking, making an evenly distributed page layout impossible. Unless maybe your paper size is huge and your font size very small. But don’t mess around because your advisor might not accept hack solutions like this. Only because the hack works doesn’t mean your advisor will accept it. Most advisors don’t accept you deviating from the form they know only because you tell them you didn’t manage to typeset it “the normal, i.e. familiar MS Word” style in LaTeX. Be wary of this right from the start and think about it carefully when you’re about to spend hours implementing some ‘custom solution’. Avoid custom if possible. You’ll likely make mistakes. That’s the same reason why you shouldn’t program things from scratch where there are already libraries, except for educational purposes.

Unless your document is fairly static (like a poster), minipages only work well when they are much smaller than the actual page they go on. As we all know, with academic writing, it’s easy to go overboard. So maybe this might not be the way to go because minipages are not floats. See this post on minipage vs. float. Using minipage means that you will probably have to typeset things manually in order for them to look good. First of all, this is generally discouraged with LaTeX. You should always leave the decision making process up to LaTeX whenever possible. If you have one thesis output PDF and another book publication output PDF with different page and font sizes, you might have to typeset it twice. Reflect on this carefully: Do you really want that? It’s always better to use relative positioning and values and also, leave litterally everything up to LaTeX.

An alternative would be wrapfigure, which is essentially like the “beside the text” option in MS Word. It is also explained in the mentioned post on minipages, wrapfigures, floats and so on. A wrapfigure won’t “clog” the overall typesetting like minipage does. Then, it is really up to what you need for your catalogue. If using floats, be sure to place them here. Like indicated in that post as well. Floats are designed to be flexible in where LaTeX places them, but in a catalogue, obviously, the image needs to go exactly on its place. Beside the text and heading it belongs to, etc.

Relative vs. absolute sizes

Another thing to consider is the sizing: Don’t use absolute values like 3cm for images, but rather 0.3\textwidth or something like that. Unless, of course, you have a scaling which depends on this – you probably know that best for yourself. The good thing about this relative approach is that it will automatically rescale everything when you change the paper size. Which might occur for the print publication. Do this and everything will still be correct and you don’t need to change everything by hand. For spacing, you could also use em instead of cm, which is relative to font size. One 1em is equal to 12pt when your current font size is 12pt, for example. So your spacing won’t suddenly be out of proportion to the font size after a font size change. Ergo you need to figure out how many ems you need because  they are not equivalent to cm, of course. That way, and the less possibly unnecessarily complicated options and packages you use, the easier it will be to paste around parts of text into different formats – such as making an article for a journal submission out of a chapter or transforming a part of your work into a poster.

Also, you should always use the LaTeX style fontsize commands like \normalsize, \small, \footnotesize, \scriptsize, \large, \Large, \huge for changes in fontsize because, yet again, they are relative to the main font size of the document. You already know by now why that’s relevant.

Treat this first thesis text as data (that’s what I do, at least). Don’t think about properly typesetting it or making it fancy unless specifically asked by your advisor. Leave all the options to standard if you can. This will make sure your text remains easily transferable to different documentclasses, etc.

Various tips

As you might have noticed, there were many extra tips scattered around the post under headings they didn’t belong to. There are many more things which might interest you but from the questions I have been asked so far, it seems to me that some other issues are less universal, so I decided not to include them here. If I missed out on a special concern of yours, please let me know and I’ll add it here or add another post on a special topic. Following a recent inquiry, I might actually add a post on generating an archaeological catalgoue taking data from an Excel sheet using the \foreach command (which is a fascinating command to learn anyway, it will super-charge your LaTeX magic!)

Some other code which might be useful to you in the preamble:

\setlength{\emergencystretch}{.25em} % avoid line overflow
\clubpenalty10000\widowpenalty10000\displaywidowpenalty=10000% avoid widow lines and orphans

And following is an example of a LaTeX catalogue typesetting solution. Maybe there would have been more beautiful ones but this might still be helpful to you as inspiration. It’s simple and does the job. Also it only uses relative sizing so it can easily be transferred to a document with different page and font sizes.

Short description, sizing info in cm, place where it was found, inventar nr.

This is the description of the object.
Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet.
This is the description of the object.
Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet.
This is the description of the object. Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet.

Literatur: Sommer 1985, Nr. 38\\

As our friend, the Noob, is about to submit her thesis already, we can look back on some of her experiences. In the end, she decided to write the catalogue with all the images in LaTeX and handle the text in Word. This allowed her to profit from the commenting functionality which many advisors like to use for feedback loops but still have the benefits from LaTeX where they are most needed (in the catalogue). I, for myself, do it the other way around: I write in LaTeX and Pandoc transform to .docx for getting my advisor’s feedback. (He did, in fact, offer to comment directly in LaTeX but that would mean I couldn’t use the absolute most awesome feature of LaTeX for writing: cursing in comments! I did not want to miss out on that one 😀 and also, my citekeys have really stupid names, so no.)

Another experience we’ve had: If you can, use LaTeX under Linux (if you’re using some Linux anyway). In Windows, some things are unnecessarily complicated (like package management, in my experience). It’s still good to use and all, but if you happen to be an (at least part-time) Linux user anyway, which quite a few archaeologists seem to be, then writing in Linux would be the easier choice for you, I’d say.

Hope this helps!


the Ninja

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Some documentclasses (in no particular order); but my advice remains: don’t be religious about it, keep you chapters in separate .tex documents using \include{chapter-one} and try to keep config stuff out of this while writing the thesis. Try to encapsulate everything in the main.tex so you only have to change one single document as opposed to having to change stuff in all your documents (and possibily forgetting half of them). Use simple “vanilla” LaTeX whenever possible (gosh, I hate when people use vanilla in that way, it’s one of my favourite ever flavourings). Don’t use fancy packages unless you’re really sure you need them. Don’t worry too much about “typesetting” your thesis before the text and layouting decisions are final (and triple-check cleared with your advisor!). You’ll likely waste a lot of time. Don’t micro-manage – let LaTeX do it’s job. Only use fancy solutions when they are really necessary. Keep it simple.

  1. Classic Thesis
  2. kaobook
  3. suftesi for Humanities-style theses & the 60p user guide
  4. KOMA-script scrbook (scary 600 pages long!)
  5. if I missed anything you found important, let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

Maybe these links might be relevant to you too:


I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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