Archaeological Technician

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.

100 Degrees, High Humidity — Field School in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley

Carole Nash writing to you from Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley, where I’m finishing up a week-long field school at a ca. 1760 Rhenish stone flurkuchenhaus, the White House, on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.  I teach at James Madison University in Harrisonburg and co-direct the Archaeological Technician Certification Program, an effort of the Archeological Society of Virginia, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the Council of Virginia Archaeologists.  This week’s field school was created for Cert students — we have over 70 grads and almost 90 active students who commit to 60 hours of lab work, 60 hours of field survey, 60 hours of excavation, 20 hours of public education, 12 courses, and a reading list a mile long.  Our students range in age from 16-83 and all share a remarkable dedication to archaeology.  The White House field school is but one of our 2012 Cert programs.

What started as a very clear, cool week ended with a blast of summer — today’s temps reached 100 degrees at the site — and we have one more day to go.  Anyone who has spent a summer digging in Virginia knows what this means:  start early, drink lots of water, and take a LONG lunch!  Fortunately for us, we’re working in an amazingly beautiful location in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, we have shade trees and canopies, and we have a clean portajohn.  We have an outdoor lab set up to wash artifacts.  Actually feels pretty luxurious.

So….the White House:  built by a German immigrant family in ca. 1760; now part of the White House Farm Foundation, which has put 270 acres of land in conservation easement and is working toward a National Register nomination for the structure.  A flurkuchenhaus is a Rhenish (German Rhineland) design, with three rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs, plus a vaulted basement.  They are sometimes referred to as ‘stone forts’ because they were constructed during the French and Indian War years on the Virginia Frontier, but they were not defensive structures.  They’re beautiful stone houses, though.  This one was covered with skim and stucco at least three times.  We have been reading Valley documents and know that the house was called “White House” as early as 1769 and used as a Mennonite and Baptist meeting house.

Our goals (in addition to getting our students solid archaeological training):  confirm the date of construction; learn about the evolution of the house; determine the impact of flooding on the landform (first terrace, South Fork of the Shenandoah); and learn whether the terrace was occupied by Native Americans prior to the Kauffman family.  A tall order for a week of work!  Gotta aim high, right?  We did, indeed, find evidence to assist with each of these goals, although admittedly, the heat slowed us down today.

I am so proud of our team — today’s crew included six Certification grads (Laura Wedin, Marsha Summerson, Maxine Grabill, Janice Biller, Linda Waggy, and Kay Veith), a Certification student (Philip Mulford), our local ASV Chapter President (Cindy Schroer), and a new archaeology student (Cullen Byers).  Our smaller crew today was down from 18 on Wednesday.  GO TEAM!  You’re the best!

Our findings from thirteen 2.5′ x 2.5 units and one backhoe trench:  our arms aren’t long enough to dig on the South Fork floodplain!  We have a .4′ flood deposit on top of a 1′ plowzone filled with late 18th/19th century artifacts, with Native American lithics and pottery included.  Under the plowzone we have flood deposit 1, flood deposit 2, flood deposit 3, flood deposit 4, flood deposit 5 — and that’s where we stopped.  The bucket auger is our friend.

Cool artifacts:  a piece of eight from the reign of Charles III (Carolus dollar); two French gun flints; English brown stoneware; Westerwald stoneware; a kaolin pipestem; creamware; a remarkable variety of pearlware; cut nails and more cut nails; Middle and Late Woodland pottery.

Our plan:  come back in the Fall when the weather is cooler.

Happy Day of Archaeology from Virginia, all!

East wall of White House