Archaeology and Infrastructure: My life on the front lines of CRM

On our lovely Day of Archaeology for 2015, I was, surprisingly, actually doing archaeology. As an archaeological field technician in the United States, work is unpredictably spotty and seasonal, to be modest. Requiring the minimal degree for any archaeological employment in the U.S. (Bachelors), field technicians (aka. field techs) have a particular love and dedication for archaeology that rivals few other occupations. We enjoy our work enough to throw predictability out the window, and often caution to the wind in our pursuit for work that moves us constantly, and can start or stop within hours’ notice. We move around our region constantly, and sometimes beyond. Work is generally on-call, and the hunt for work is perpetual.

However, as mentioned earlier, on Friday the 24th of July, I was on-site monitoring for a city utilities improvement project in a small city in the Pacific Northwest. I and nearly all archaeological field technicians aren’t drowning in paperwork as most archaeologists do this time of year—they send us out to do the grunt work of various types. This includes monitoring—supervising construction or utility projects in or near known archaeological sites. Sometimes an area is just “high probability”, meaning that based on the topography, what is known about the history of the area, it is highly likely there is something there—we just haven’t found it yet. This was my day. The expert on site, I was keeping an eye out for any artifacts or other evidence that might churn up while they were digging the trench to install new pipes. Artifacts that appear can be of varying types and aren’t always as obvious as one might think, especially when looking for prehistoric sites. This also happened to be a day when the work being done did not actually turn anything up as we had expected. I documented soil changes, took measurements and documented excavated areas (this information is kept for future reference), and wrote a report for the firm I was currently in hire with. Cultural Resource Management (CRM), the field of archaeology I and most archaeologists in the United States work in, is often joked about as the science of negative data. The work we do is where the rubber hits the road; active protection of archaeology in the ground through investigation, analysis, and identification. Minimizing or avoiding damage to sites is the main goal of Cultural Resource Management, and that protection and investigation is the driving force. If we find no archaeology where a proposed pipeline, wind turbine, or electrical tower will be going in, the better it is for everyone involved. Knowing where sites are and assisting large projects, often infrastructure related, we are there to find the “road of least impact”. When something is found, things get a lot more complicated. Considering all the interests involved and figuring out the best action can be difficult, depending on how the relationships between those interests are. That of course is the job of those higher up.

Archaeological Technician is one of the most common jobs in archaeology (approximately 80% of all archaeologists in the U.S. work in CRM), even though we don’t actually know how many field technicians work in the United States. It is a difficult number to come up with, especially considering the transient nature of the work. Most technicians hold other part time work as well, or do small jobs on the side to help make ends meet, or they may only hold the position for a single season. As technicians we also work for a number of companies; rarely does one company have enough work to keep all their technicians busy year round. Many technicians work for a handful of CRM firms around their region, and with each project having different needs the size of crews can vary from one to thirty or so. All this also means that burnout is common, so the turnover can be high. It takes serious determination and a good deal of luck is involved in moving careers forward. It takes a lot more than just a passing interest in archaeology to hold your own in the world of arch techs.