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Maybe you're an undergraduate who is interested in archaeology and would like to know what you can reasonably expect out of a career in the field. Maybe you're just interested in what most employed archaeologists actually do. This article is for you.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Billwhittaker)

Cultural resources management (CRM) involves the practical application of archaeological methods with the goal of preserving our nation's cultural heritage. The goal is to identify, record, and preserve: prehistoric and historic archaeological sites, historic structures and infrastructure, and cemeteries. This field employs most of the archaeologists in America and is responsible for the vast majority of archaeological field work performed here.


A Brief History

CRM can trace its roots to the Antiquities Act of 1906. This act, passed by Theodore Roosevelt, allowed the president to restrict the use of federally owned lands. The goal of the act was to protect Native American artifacts from being plundered by private collectors. The act allowed federal lands to be turned into "National Monuments" where the collection of artifacts is against the law.

Two laws, 1966's National Historic Preservation Act and 1974's Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, created the framework for modern CRM. The upshot of these laws is that if construction is going to impact government owned lands or use government dollars there has to be a survey done to establish if any significant cultural resources would be impacted.

So what this means, is if you decide to put a pool in your back yard you don't have to have an archaeologist make sure there are no sites there, but if you want to run a natural gas pipeline, add a lane to a road, or establish a new mine, you are obligated to ensure that no significant sites are going to be disturbed.


How Do We Know Where Sites Are?

CRM archaeologists locate sites through survey. In general, surveys can be broken down into three categories. Phase I surveys are the broadest, and therefore most common, surveys. They involve a combination of background research and field work to identify any cultural resources within the project area and delineate the boundaries of these resources. The background research involves querying state site files for any previously recorded sites near your project area, pulling up historic aerial photographs and plat maps, and examining the soils and water sources in the area.


The field work covers the entire project area and can include methods like remote sensing, pedestrian survey, and shovel testing. Remote sensing involves the use of advanced imaging technology to examine the properties of soil for evidence of archaeological disturbance. A good example is Ground Penetrating Radar, a description of which can be read here. Pedestrian survey and shovel testing are methods that look directly for artifacts. Shovel testing involves digging holes and sifting the soil through wire mesh screens, typically with holes no larger than a quarter of an inch. Any artifacts found in the holes are collected, the depth they were found is recorded, and the properties of the soil (color, sand, silt, or clay, mositure, etc.) are recorded. The state you are working in determined the size shovel test needed. For example, Florida requires 50 x 50 cm holes down to 1 meter below the ground surface, while Louisiana requires 30 cm holes down to 50 cm. Other states do not have the same soil deposition rates and therefore require only pedestrian survey. It is generally unnecessary, for example, to dig holes in Nevada because artifacts will simply be apparent on the surface.

The background research will influence the field sampling strategy. For example, while you would want a relatively even grid over your project area to have a chance to catch any sites, it makes sense to put tests closer together in areas more likely to contain them. If a previously recorded site is a couple hundred meters away from one corner of your project area, it stands to reason that that corner has a better chance of containing a site than the rest of the area, all else being equal. Lots of research has shown that sites also tend to be more common on rises above water. This makes sense, because these areas provide both drinking water and food resources. Additionally, sites tend not to be located in the middle of swamps (difficult to build a village in muck) or in low areas far from any water source.


A Phase II survey is designed to determine if a site is eligible for the National Register for Historic Places, which would protect that site from being disturbed. This phase is designed to reveal more information about a site and determine if it is significant enough to be on the register. You can read the Criteria for Evaluation here. This phase usually involves more testing around areas of high artifact concentration and the opening of test units. Test units are similar to shovel tests, but are larger and are dug more slowly and with greater care. Soil is removed in set increments (usually 10 cm) to have greater spatial control of where artifacts are located (their x, y, and z position).

Phase III surveys are designed to preserve data if a site that is eligible for the register is going to be negatively impacted by construction. For example, if a pipeline absolutely has to go through the middle of an eligible site a Phase III survey is done to preserve as much of the data about that site as possible. It is a form of salvage archaeology, saving the data from permanent destruction.


How The Process Works

Early in the planning phase of a project a construction company will ask CRM firms to make bids on the project. Since these companies are competing on price it usually means that a company close to the construction will get the contract (as they will have less costs than companies that are farther away).


The company will send archaeological technicians to the project area to do the survey. Field techs are the backbone of the industry and do most of the labor. They dig the holes, screen the dirt, recover the artifacts, and fill out paperwork. Often they are used to analyze and catalog artifacts once they return to the lab. Generally these are folks with a Bachelor's or Master's degree in archaeology or anthropology. Crew chiefs supervise the techs and are responsible for ensuring testing is being done properly and safely. They are experienced in the field and can respond to changing conditions on the ground to adjust the sampling strategy as needed. They may have any degree, but generally have spent many years as a field tech. A PI, or Principle Investigator is an archaeologist who has been accredited by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and has at a minimum a Master's degree, and often a Doctorate. The PI is responsible for writing the report based on the background research, field work, and artifact analysis.

This report is submitted to the developers and to the state archaeologist where the work is being done. The PI makes recommendations about the project area. For example he or she may suggest a Phase II if a Phase I produces a lot of interesting artifacts. They may suggest no further work is needed at all. It's up to the state archaeologist to agree with these recommendations, or send the report back for more work/further explanation.


There are a lot of concerned parties in this process, and they all want something different. Land owners may not want any construction on their land, or they may be excited about compensation (like if a pipeline goes through their back yard). Developers obviously want the project to go as soon as possible and with no changes to their plans. I've heard lots of stories of developers pressuring companies to recommend that nothing is needed, even if sites are in the area. Archaeologists generally want to find and preserve all possible artifacts, but they also don't want to go over their budgets by testing too much. Native groups may either be upset about the recovery and movement of artifacts, or they may appreciate that research is preserving information about their ancestors.

What Is It Like?

The experience of working in CRM really depends on the level at which you are employed. Since most of the people doing it are field techs or crew chiefs, I'll talk about that. First, you're never home. You often work long stretches, often far from home. You'll live out of hotels for weeks at a time. You'll often share that hotel room and have little privacy. The towns you stay in are often boring. You'll eat out of gas stations and fast food joints. Archaeologists have a reputation as one of the drinkin'-est groups of people around. Your coworkers will probably spend a lot of time at bars or getting trashed in their hotel.


The work is hard. You'll often walk several miles a day, carrying your shovel and screen with you. Digging is taxing, especially in hot weather. You'll be exposed to the elements. You'll get rained on. You will be devoured by mosquitoes and other insects. You'll get shredded by thorns. You will be driving off road and may spend a few hours getting your vehicle out of a mud pit.

The compensation is usually poor. You'll have invested a lot of time and probably money in a degree to be paid worse than other skilled labor. CRM is directly tied to the construction industry. If no projects are being built, no surveys are being done. Lots of firms don't have enough work to justify full time field staff, so they will hire part-timers only for the duration of a project. These people are called shovelbums, and they move from project to project, state to state, with no job security and no benefits. Jobs are posted on the legendary Shovelbums website.


That Sounds Awful, Why Do It?

Because it needs to be done. Because the people doing this job fundamentally believe that archaeology belongs to everyone. We may work for a private company, but we serve the people. We ensure a historic cemetery lost to time isn't bulldozed to make way for an overpass. We make sure things like the Miami Circle aren't lost underneath the foundations of a hotel. We are the stewards of our shared cultural heritage.


Beyond our role as public servants, sometimes it's just a cool job. There's nothing like seeing a stone point or decorated pottery sherd show up in your screen. If you have a passion for archaeology but don't see yourself in academia it's a great way to do what you want to do. One amazing site can make up for months of digging up gravel at the side of a road.

Ok, Do You Have Any Last Tips?

Yep! Buy a good pair of boots. Everyone has a personal preference, but anything comfy and water-resistant is a good idea. Get a machete, you'll often need to cut your own path to your next shovel test. Have a dependable pocket knife handy. Invest in a nice compass, it'll make your life much easier. Camelbaks, or something similar are useful for making sure you drink enough water throughout the day. Get a big hat and wear lots of sunblock, melanoma is no joke. A bandanna can help keep the sweat out of your eyes and be used for makeshift bandages. Quick dry pants are great, but make sure they're thick enough that they won't be shredded by thorns or barbed wire. Last, but certainly not least, always carry wetnaps and learn to do what bears do.


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