10 more unwritten rules of professional archaeology 8

10 unwritten rules for professional archaeologyI’m piggy backing on a couple of archaeology blog posts I read earlier this week about unwritten rules of professional archaeology. The topic was started by Tracy Brown, webmaster of the blog Archaeology in Tennessee. Mr. Brown started a thread asking about the Unwritten Rules in Professional Archaeology and has solicited additional rules from the readers of that post. This morning, I read Doug Rocks-MacQueen’s response on his blog.

This conversation addresses a pretty important aspect of doing professional (specifically CRM) archaeology in the United States. We learn about archaeology from books and college classes, but nobody really addresses the unspoken “rules” that guide our profession. We never think about why we’re doing what we’re doing, what it takes to survive in this profession, and why we think folks from other states are less adequate (FYI: Tracy, there’s still huge discrimination against archaeos from other states in Arizona and New Mexico. If you want to work in the Southwest, you’re going to have to have Southwest experience or get extremely lucky [or, say you’re a historical archaeologist]. Otherwise, you’re going to be unemployed for a very, very long time.)

Understanding the unspoken rules of archaeology is a lot like knowing the rules to Fight Club. In fact, sometimes professional archaeology feels kinda like you just left Fight Club.

I’ll be the first to admit there really aren’t any rules to professional archaeology. It’s like any other industry. Some companies succeed. Some archaeologists succeed. Many do not. If you make money, you live to dig another day. If you don’t… I’ll see you at Starbucks.

Here are My 10 Unspoken Rules in Professional Archaeology:

1.  Everybody busts ass, every day, all of the time— Ever wonder why your boss is already in the office when you get there and stays long after you’ve left? Or, why the best crew chiefs spend a few hours in their hotel rooms going over the crew’s notes each night? What would motivate professional archaeologists to volunteer on community archaeology days even though they’re not getting paid?

This should be a general rule for life, but it seems like most young Americans have forgotten this one. Go all out. Don’t leave anything left on the table. You’re always all in on every project, every time. If you want to be an archaeologist you’re going to need to commit to it.

2.  Your network is your resume— It’s strange to say this out loud even though I wrote a book that attempts to show archaeologists how to write a resume, but, if you want to stay employed in archaeology you’re going to have to do more than write a good resume. Great resumes can get you in the door, but your network can get you in there without even having to write a resume. Click here if you want to learn the basics of networking for archaeologists (I call it friendraising).

3.  There is no right or wrong way to do professional archaeology— Don’t get me wrong. Professional archaeologists make mistakes. Lots of them. Some more than others.

There certainly are unethical ways of doing archaeology. Some archaeological techniques may go against your morals. Some people think CRM in itself is immoral. (There’s something about profiting from the destruction of non-renewable archaeological resources that makes some archaeologists queasy) And, there is definitely sloppy work out there. But, there is no 100%, always right, never wrong way to approach doing archaeology.

Some archaeologists think it’s okay to hire unskilled laborers for third world wages in order to dig a site. In some foreign countries, the project sponsor is always the first author on any article that’s written about “his/her” site, even if they didn’t participate in the project. Sometimes we use backhoes to dig off the “overburden” in order to get to the part of the site that is from a specific time period, discarding this sediment without even looking for artifacts. Don’t get me started with bare-bones compliance reports with almost no archaeological value.

Despite these problems, archaeology is about collecting and interpreting data. The methods employed on each project vary depending on the research questions, where the project is conducted, the archaeologists’ experience and training, and the project’s goals. There are myriad ways of approaching this issue of data collection, which is why I say there is no right or wrong way to do professional archaeology (Although I have some very strong opinions on how it should be done. Just read my blog for a few weeks).

4.  You need to be a T-person— A T-person is the most desirable kind of archaeologist. They have a depth of knowledge on a specific topic (that’s the vertical axis of the “T”) and know a little bit about a broad range of topics (represented by the horizontal “T’s” axis). Specialists are pretty much dead meat in CRM archaeology because, while they’re knowledgeable of a very specific topic, they don’t know much else. What company needs a full-time artifact illustrator? Not too many.

Click here to read my post on why CRM archaeology values T-people.

5.  A degree is like your archaeology driver’s license— A college degree is almost necessary to be a professional archaeologist. I know a couple archaeos without degrees and they spend a lot of time bitching about how they keep getting passed up for jobs and promotions by people with degrees. A degree isn’t mandatory, but it sure helps…a lot.

Some archaeologists, especially those with PhDs, tend to think that their degree says to the world “This person knows archaeology.” They’re wrong. A college degree just shows the world that you know more about archaeology than the average bear. A driver’s license says you know the basics about driving a car, but that doesn’t mean you can go “Ice Road Truckers” or challenge Jeff Gordon to a race. A license just says, most of the time, you can drive a car without crashing into something.

Similarly, a college degree says you’re booksmart, dedicated to archaeology, and have the potential to learn. It doesn’t mean you’re Brian Fagan, Julian Steward, or Janet Spector.

6.  Jobs don’t always go to the most qualified or best archaeologists— This is another life rule that seems to go unacknowledged by archaeologists. Sometimes your boss will be inept. Sometimes the worst crew member gets hired permanently at the end of a temporary project. Sometimes archaeologists that don’t even care about CRM keep getting promoted and make life-long careers in the industry.

Life isn’t fair and neither is archaeology. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or how “good” they are at their job. You just need to keep doing what you’re doing, keep your nose to the grindstone, and looking for things about archaeology that you find interesting. Your dedication and accomplishments will speak for themselves.

There is one caveat: Archaeology is an extremely small field and word gets around quickly. The people that get hired are usually the ones that get good reviews from other archaeologists. You aren’t going to get hired if every time someone asks another archaeologist about your skills and they say, “She’s a pretty smart person, but…” Your career will always be difficult if there’s always a disclaimer when people talk about you.

7.  Safety is your responsibility— Last year, I started a one-man crusade to improve workplace safety in professional archaeology (Check out the health and safety resources on my blog). I have helped at least one company prioritize workplace safety and have helped a few more. It’s tough work, but I think this is important and will keep marching on about this topic because I can count on one hand the number of archaeologists that can bend over or squat down and lift a 30-pound box after they’re 60-years-old. Our backs and knees are usually blown by the time we’re 35.

There is no way we can create rules of conduct to keep us archaeologists safe in every, single occasion. However, there is much we all can do to improve safety in our industry. It all starts with recognizing your own obligation to work safely and encourage others to do the same. The main problem with health and safety in archaeology is the tough-guy culture that thinks risky work is okay. We can break that down by refusing to do unsafe activities and making sure we know how to work safely. Occupational safety begins and ends with individual employees. It is your responsibility to make sure you are safe at work.

8.  Making your company money is your responsibility— Principal Investigators and company owners are simply one link in the chain of a successful business. These folks are important, but it takes a whole team of employees to make a company successful.

We can all contribute to profitability in a lot of different ways. Principals and owners can look to create partnerships, diversify the company’s income streams. Mid-level managers can strive to be efficient and keep the synergy between crew members copacetic. Field techs can take the initiative to learn about their craft and try to help less knowledgeable crew members. Keeping clients happy, within reason, should be the goal of all employees. I know a lot of us feel left out of the party when it comes to profit sharing, especially the lowly techs, crew chiefs, and project directors that actually do the archaeological work, but it takes all employees to keep the income stream flowing. Companies survive and fail because of the attitudes of their employees.

9.  The research design and SHPO regulations are the bare minimum— Most companies and archaeologists act like doing what’s written in the project research design and fulfilling the SHPOs guidelines means they’re doing archaeology. They are and they aren’t.

Professional CRM archaeology means we do what we said we were going to do (the research design) in accordance with environmental laws (the regs). But, this should be considered the bare minimum of what it takes to do archaeology. The best projects I’ve worked on went the extra mile. These projects tried to use the project as a launch pad for deeper exploration with the intention of making a significant contribution to the field of archaeology. While these projects are rare, we all should be thinking of ways we can contribute to the field with every project.

We don’t have to act like milquetoast Wall Street bankers. While it’s difficult to enforce accountability in archaeology, we should aspire to do more than the bare minimum.

10.  Don’t think this job is going to last— Plan to get laid off, fired, or otherwise be without work. The folks that can survive in archaeology are the ones with the best networks and the ability to find work when their current job flames out. Nobody is immune. Government archaeos can get fired when administrations change. CRM PIs can get laid off if they fu*k up a project or can’t bring in money. Sometimes, professors don’t get tenure. Most don’t even get a shot at the tenure track. The rest of us can get tossed in the dumpster for any number of reasons. Finally, you can just get bored and switch careers.

All archaeologists need to be prepared for the inevitable. Always be able to find a new job if you have to.

I just stream-of-conscious wrote this post, jotting down the unspoken rules I could think of. If you’ve got any more I encourage you to email Tracy Brown at tcbkjbbrown@comcast.net or comment on the post on Archaeology in Tennessee: http://contextintn.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/unwritten-rules-in-professional-archaeology-part-1/

You’ve also got to read Doug’s response to this query: http://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/4-unwritten-rules-of-professional-archaeology/

As always, you can comment below or send me an email.

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8 thoughts on “10 more unwritten rules of professional archaeology

  • Tracy Brown

    Hi Bill. Thank you for your excellent list of unwritten rules in professional archaeology. You have obviously put a lot of time and thought into it, and we appreciate it very much!!!

    With regard to archaeological rivalries across state lines and between regions of the United States, I have always been aware of the regional issues (i.e., people trained in southeastern archaeology are not especially welcome in Oregon). When I was a wet-behind-the-ears teenager (and this is true) back in the early 1970s, my sole interest in archaeology was Tennessee archaeology and the archaeology of the southeastern United States and the Ohio Valley. However, a friend of mine and I in Ellington Hall (dormitory) at Austin Peay State University (APSU) were all set and on the verge of actually transferring to the University of Utah where I would have been studying anthropology and archaeology under Jesse D. Jennings.

    Back in those days, I honestly thought an archaeology education is an archaeology education—no matter where you get it. You can study archaeology in Utah or Oregon—and then you can immediately go straight to Maine to take over the world of Maine archaeology. And even worse, there was almost no one in my life with enough knowledge about archaeology to disabuse me of that notion. Most family members and friends knew nothing about archaeology. High school guidance counselors knew nothing about archaeology. My professors and friends at APSU knew virtually nothing about archaeology. Professional archaeology as we think of it today was just coming into existence in the Nashville area, and professional archaeologists who had the time to offer good advice on regional issues to a kid were few and far between. One of my relatives who did know something about archaeology intervened and intuitively suggested that my areas of archaeological interest might be best served by a university in those areas, but even he was not aware of the regional issues that you brought up.

    Fast forwarding into the future, there is still a problem with this issue that is hard to deal with in some corporations, and it is worse when you are one of their employees. Many low-level, mid-level, and high-level executives in assorted corporations are still clueless about the NHPA, even though it is 50 years after the fact. They know nothing about archaeological ethics (and hold them in extremely low regard when they do hear them), and they are totally unaware of the regionalism issues that you mentioned. Vice-Presidents are really bad news. If the company is located in…say…Michigan, but their big land development project is in Arizona, they want to know why in the hell they cannot send the local Michigan archaeologists who normally work for them in the Great Lakes region out to Arizona to do the CRM project. “Why do we have to hire an Arizona company? History is history. Right? Archaeology is archaeology. Right? It shouldn’t make any difference. Besides, archaeology is a ‘no never mind’ anyway!!! Right?” Been there. Seen some versions of this. It can get really uncomfortable when these executives start trying to figure out American archaeology using what they normally view as logical and sensible from inside their MBA boxes. This regionalism of education and practice in American archaeology challenges a number of them.

    Thanks again Bill.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for the response, Tracy. Regionalism is a biggie in the U.S. Based on Doug Rocks-MacQueen’s responses, having a drivers license is also huge.

      The only way around regionalism is becoming a historical archaeologist. I was able to get a job in Seattle out of the University of Idaho mainly because I knew my historic artifacts and historical sites. In Seattle I learned about historical structures and buildings. I used that info to move down to Tucson with no southwestern experience, but I had to make up for it QUICKLY. I was forced to learn about the Southwestern cultures and have gotten a crash course from some of the best folks down here. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been called a historical archaeologist.

      I see architectural history is the next biggie, but it’ll never surpass the importance of knowing historical sites. Most other archaeos only want to study prehistoric stuff when, if they focused on the historical stuff first, they’d get more opportunities to see prehistoric sites than they ever would by focusing on prehistory of a specific region.

      Thanks for writing that post. You’ve got a new follower.

  • Ryan Howell


    Some good points. As a usually, Principal Investigator at most companies, I would take some objection to #7 safety is everyone’s responsibility but it falls to the leadership chain to insure that it takes place. The mark of a good leader is that they do not ask anyone to do anything they would not do themselves. Also another mark of leadership is placing the safety and security of your people as the first priority in any situation, even if it means walking off or canceling the project.

    Just my two cents,

    Ryan Howell
    Sparta, WI

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      You’re right, Ryan. But so many PIs simply don’t think safety is important until someone files a workman comp claim. You are right. The bulk of the responsibility is on the management, but everyone should feel empowered to work safely. You’re also right about walking off the job if things get scary. One of my best supervisors used to tell us all the time “no project or site is worth dying over.”

  • Smoke Pfeiffer

    I have made my living as an archaeologist for almost 40 years and I agree with all of your 10 unwritten rules of Professional Archaeology. I would add a note that if you are a professional archaeologist visiting someone else’s site, do it late in the afternoon so you do not unduly disrupt proceedings and bring lots of cold BEER for the entire crew!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      I hope to make it for 40 years. And that beer rule still stands. Thanks for reading this post.

  • Drew Cozby

    In private sector, professional archaeology there are really only two major unwritten rules.

    You got Rule #1 right – Everybody busts ass, everyday, all of the time. You should strive to be the hardest worker on the team. Towards the end of a hot, dusty day out in the field, be enthusiastic about doing one more transect. And, be willing to do one more after that. No complaining. This relates to Rule #1b.

    Rule #1b – Co-workers must like working with you. Totally unrelated to archaeology, but much more important that anything on your resume. Archaeological fieldwork is a collaborative process – you must work and play well with others. When putting together field crews, I never heard one question or comment about the quality or quantity of the candidate’s academic credentials. The people that were chosen were the people we liked and wanted to work with, passing over the candidates that may have stellar resumes and experience but were known to be hard to get along with. If you can’t get along and fit in with the crew, you will probably not be invited back on the next project or session and will never rise up in the ranks of the company (this is the primary factor to Rule #6). Professional archaeology in the southwest is a small community and word gets around (see Rule #2). I’ve worked with field techs that were hired off of some website (Shovelbums, etc.) and their only experience was digging shovel tests in the swamps of the southeast, but they worked hard and were well liked. Now they are experienced and employed southwest archaeologists.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Drew, thanks for filling us in on how people get hired in CRM. I haven’t had too much experience vetting and hiring, but I always wondered why certain people remained employed while others were always looking for work. Being a personable team player sounds like a major factor in hiring.

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