Starting Over in Alberta

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

This year, the Day of Archaeology actually fell upon the first day of a four day weekend. Having moved to Alberta from Wisconsin in late-2014, I’m currently working a 10-day on/four-day off shift as a field tech for a Canadian Cultural Resource Management company. Actually, they constantly remind me that I’m not a field tech, if only because they don’t use that particular title. Officially, I’m a staff archaeologist working for this particular firm for a limited time. The job duties are essentially the same, though. I basically accompany a higher ranking archaeologist and help them by doing the basics: dig, walk a lot, look for historic properties, and take notes. I’m pretty removed from any decision-making, which after 15 years of being in a supervisory role, is both incredibly relaxing and somewhat boring. It’s nice to be free of the stress and obligations of being a boss. At the same time, I really enjoy performing a lot of the boss-type duties.

In Alberta, you need to be issued a permit in order to conduct archaeological excavation. I’ve been approved to apply for one, with certain reasonable restrictions. This means that I could theoretically work for a firm as a permit-holder, and run my own projects. Unfortunately, I chose pretty much the worst time to move to Alberta. With the price of oil in the tank, development has all but stopped. There just aren’t very many archaeology positions, this year, so I feel lucky to have the job I do. The only other place that seems to be hiring is apparently working their staff for long shifts comprised of 12-hour days. That just sounds like burn out city to me. I can’t imagine how someone could consistently produce quality work with that sort of schedule and I wonder how many will still want to do archaeology in five-years time.

The typical day starts with a safety meeting, which is called a tailgate meeting despite the fact that most of them don’t occur at the tailgate of our truck. After that, the bosses knock out any coordination with the client that might remain. Then, we head out to the project site, where we drive around looking for sites and historic structures. We follow a judgemental survey strategy, which means we dig shovel tests in places where we think there’s a good chance of finding a site. This targeted approach is different than the systematic survey methods that I’m used to. For that, we shovel test along regular intervals in order to get broader coverage. There can be some down time while bosses do boss stuff. Flexibility is an essential skill for a (not a-) field tech.

During all of this, we talk. In addition to the usual discussions about our interests in pop culture, we discuss archaeology. As a result of the judgemental method of surveying, we debate about where sites might be located and how that differs between the boreal forest, the northern plains, the alpine portion of the Rockies, and any other places that we know about. We talk about possible interpretations of the sites that we’re currently working on. We compare the differences in the compliance process between Alberta, the other Canadian provinces, and the United States, which has strong federal legislation. We talk about the job market and the potential for work after the project ends. This all helps me calibrate my reasoning to the Albertan way of doing things, as well as the local variations of cultural property that we might encounter.

This job is sort of a restart for me. In addition to just getting the local experience that employers want to see, it lets me see the local archaeological properties, methods, and processes first hand so I can relate it back to what I already know. I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunities to discuss our work with my coworkers and that will hopefully lead to more (and longterm!) employment in the future. The bottom line for many of the archaeologists that you might have seen in other Day of Archaeology posts is that archaeology isn’t just something we love, it’s something we do to (hopefully) pay the bills. Trying to make that profession fit with the rest of our lives can sometimes be a challenge. In my case, moving has required me to restart my career in a number of ways.

The Quiet Rush

The lights are on, but the office feels dark because the sky’s so overcast. It’s not raining, but that really doesn’t matter; the crew isn’t working today. It’s Friday and the crew works four ten-hour days, Monday through Thursday.

The lab techs have that schedul too, so they’re also not around. There are a couple of people from the natural resources side of the firm and one other archaeologist comes in for a few hours to work on a report. For the most part, though, I’m alone in the office.

This is my favorite time to be at work. There are few distractions and the schedule is relaxed and easy-going. I have a large list of duties that need to get done, so even a relaxed Friday keeps me busy.

The first order of business is also one of the most important. Timesheets. I sign, scan, and submit the timesheets for the hourly employees. I also enter the number of hours from those timesheets into a tracking spreadsheet. This allows me to keep track of both the budget and the workload.

After that, I respond to any emails that might be sitting in my inbox. There’s usually only one or two and they don’t usually take too long to address. I then fill out the rest of the morning by backing up the field cameras and field notebooks, as well as pulling newly-recorded data from the GPS unit and entering it into our project’s geodatabase. I’ve automated a lot of this last task, but I still look through the data to make sure that everything that needed to be recorded was and that the data looks accurate.

The afternoon is mostly spent looking at how the field teams are going and planning on where they’ll be for the following week. I work on getting the necessary land access permissions to the locations they’ll be working at, as well as submitting digger’s hotline locate requests for where the teams will go later in the week.

Finally, I look at the workload spreadsheet that shows how the field crews are going. I calculate the number of excavation units that they’ve excavated in the past week, the total over the year, the estimated remaining number of excavation units for the project, and the average number of units per week for this project. I write an email to the client that includes this spreadsheet and add a few paragraphs that discuss specifically what sites the field teams have been working on and where they’re planning on going next week. It’s kind of a boring topic, so I also try to add some color by discussing what the teams have been finding at these sites and any significance that those artifacts might have.

Some of the above duties are done on other days as well, but that’s my typical Friday. The above duties are more clerical than what you might think an archaeologist does, but it allows the field teams to do their job and also allows us to turn all of that fieldwork into a usable product.

ARPA Monitoring

For Day of Archaeology 2013, I was able to do one of the best duties of my job, ARPA (Archaeological Resources Protection Act) Monitoring. This isn’t monitoring in the usual sense of watching construction work from afar to see if they inadvertently uncover archaeological properties. This involves visiting protected archaeological sites to see if they’ve been disturbed or are threatened with erosion or vehicle traffic. It is an essential part of cultural resource management for those federal agencies that actually manage land.

Basically, you drive to a site and walk around it while looking for any signs of disturbance. Then you take a photo or two of the site to record its condition and record the visit in your notes. As archaeology duties go, it doesn’t take a lot of work or (usually) a lot of thinking. Sometimes you need to walk a kilometer or so in order to get to the site. Other times, you can drive right up to it. Either way, it’s a pleasant walk through the woods.


Tools used for ARPA monitoring.


In the past, I’ve done this alone. This year, I’ve been driving around with my COR (read: client POC). So, in addition to walking around looking at important sites, I’ve also been describing and explaining the sites to him. Basically, I’ve been giving a tour of some of the sites. Considering that most of my job involves sitting behind a computer, this wasn’t a bad way to spend the day at all.

The Unexpected Task

It was an odd morning from the start. Turning on the radio to hear the radio hosts using that tone of voice that they get when they have “breaking” news. Congress was doing something, or rather wasn’t doing anything, and this was forcing them off-script.

The drive to the office/lab was similarly odd. The fog was thicker than normal for this time of the year. Signs along the highway were warning that the right lane was closed for a painting convoy. That convoy never materialized. I drove patiently behind a semi that was hauling bales of hay. Driving slowly through the thick, timothy-scented fog.

I arrived at the lab, one of the technicians was waiting for me. Normally, all of our technicians are on the field crew, and the field crew works ten-hour days from Monday through Thursday. This tech missed a day and wanted to make up hours. I had some lab work than needed to be done anyway, and had agreed to let her work some hours in the lab today.

When I got out of the car, the first thing she said to me was not “Hello” or “Good morning” or any of the usual morning salutations, but “I have some bad news.” Bad news. Yes. Hang on while I sip coffee from my travel mug.

As it turns out, there was a problem, but it wasn’t particularly bad. The Jeep had a flat the evening before and the spare was evidently not intended to be used on the Jeep. It didn’t fit. So, we took the spare off and I had her drive it over to the car place while I made arrangements with the purchasing guy. I should have guessed, but we needed to replace all four tires on the Jeep because it’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle and the tires all need to be the same size. So, the technician brought the wheel back and we had the Jeep towed to the dealer, who had to order the necessary tires. They’ll be in sometime next week.

The rest of the day was much more typical for one of my Fridays. I crunched the data to show our progress on fieldwork for the various projects we’re working on. I plotted out the areas where we’re planning on doing fieldwork next week. I responded to inquiries about whether certain undertakings would need any cultural resource work. I prepared the crew’s timesheets and sent them to the accountants to be processed. I answered questions about how to process artifacts to be cataloged.

Friday is usually a quiet day for me. The quiet days usually involve something I hadn’t planned on. Like most people, I carry that mental list of things that I have to do during the day. I rarely get to that list before lunch. The unexpected task inevitably takes up my morning. Sometimes, it’s a high-priority project that we need to complete sometime yesterday. Other times, someone has been injured and it’s a worker’s comp issue (those are the problems that I’d prefer to not have). Still other times are logistical issues that need to be resolved so the crew can keep doing their job. Not all of these issues involve changing a tire, but the variety keeps the job interesting.