Being an Archaeological Field Technician: The Truth

(This is a guest post distilled from conversation threads created by the active and experienced members of two cultural resource management archaeology Facebook groups: the “North American Archaeological Technicians” [390 members] and the “Archaeo Field Techs” [1,557 members]. Personal identities have been omitted in order to protect the privacy of the group members. Please, contact me if you have object to having your comments included in this post.)

Is it possible to have a career as a cultural resource management archaeological field technician?Aspiring archaeologists all want to know one thing: Can you make a living doing archaeology?

Most archaeologists find work in the cultural resource management industry, so they’d be the best ones to ask about forging a career in archaeology. Nevertheless, archaeology students have limited access to CRMers (or, they rarely seek us out) so they are left asking university professors about the viability of their career choices. They do not always give the best advice. Most anthro professors are the kind of people who never balked at all the naysayers who said becoming an archaeology professor was a fool’s errand because they actually succeeded. You have better odds of dying from cancer than becoming an anthro professor, but your teachers somehow did it so they think nothing of following dreams from conception to completion. They think you can do it because they can.

What do you think an anthro professor is going to say when an aspiring student asks if they can have a stable career in archaeology? Unless they’re extremely dissatisfied pessimists, a professor will usually say “Yes”. And, why wouldn’t they? Tenured professors are the lottery winners of the anthro career game. They’ve succeeded and they believe others can defy the odds as well. (BTW: Most anthro professors think you are asking if you can create a stable career as an archaeology project manager, principal investigator, research archaeologist, or professor. They rarely see being an archaeological technician as a viable “career”.)

When you ask the same question to CRMers, you’re going to get a lot of different answers. You’re really going to hear some truth if you ask whether or not being an archaeological technician is a functional career option.

The members of the North American Archaeological Technicians and the Archaeo Field Techs Facebook groups pondered the following questions:

North American Archaeological Technicians: “Is it possible to have a stable income when entering the work force of archaeology?”

Archaeo Field Techs: “Let’s talk about actual long-term and end-game. I felt like it is our responsibility to tell the truth to the young ones and also perhaps remind ourselves of the big elephant in the room.” (i.e. What are we all going to do with our careers when we get older?)

I’ve written about the plight of the archaeological field tech before. I have also spent a lot of time discussing how you can create a satisfying career doing archaeology. Arguably, all of the 194 posts I’ve written on this blog were about creating an archaeology career in cultural resource management, historic preservation, or heritage conservation.

I’m not the only one talking about careers in archaeology on the internet. There are over 84,600 Google results just for videos on “how to have a career in archaeology”. Here is one of my favorites (although I don’t agree with her opinion on the over-educated PhDs in CRM):



Discovering a way to get paid doing what we all love— archaeology. Most CRMers start out as an archaeological field technician. While there is a lot of turnover at the field tech level, some archaeologists love being in the field so much they do not want to advance beyond this level. The pay isn’t great at the tech level and there is little job stability but if you want to spend most of your time out in the field this is pretty much the best position in CRM archaeology.

Here are what the nearly 2,000 Facebook group members had to say about being a career field technician:

Remember your motivation and have a plan.

You had a plan of study in college that helped you navigate one of the most expensive bureaucracies in American society. It only makes sense that you should create one for your career in archaeology even if you plan on staying a field tech. Always keep your motivations for even wanting to become an archaeologist in mind. They can be a powerful force throughout your career:

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs. Being an archaeologist is by far the best one, even during the lean years.

  1. “Do archaeology because you love both physical and intellectual challenges.
  2. Don’t fall for the “work hard play hard” lifestyle. If you play too hard you’ll always be a tech.
  3. Work on your writing skills!!! You won’t ever get office work if you can’t write. You also will struggle in graduate school without writing skills.
  4. Develop your business management skills.
  5. Become well-versed in Section 106. That is the primary driver behind our job market. If you can’t understand Section 106 you will always be a tech or you’d better get your PhD and cross your fingers that you can land an academic job.

“For many of us, long term careers in archaeology start in field tech work but then require transitions into permanent employment in government, consulting, museums, or teaching. Archaeology’s not that different from other fields in that way: start at entry-level but always look ahead to the next step, whatever that is for you.

“I guess what my point is that you get out what you put into it. If you want to be a tech when you’re 50, do it. There’s plenty of brilliant archaeologists who are older and still techs. If you want to rise in a company, work for it.”

You will have to manage your own retirement and career

In all the threads, it was very clear that you would have to take charge of your own retirement if you want to be prepared for the day you can no longer stay out in the field. There are a number of different ways field techs are handling this:

“My endgame while shovel bumming was to start a Roth IRA early and contribute to it regularly. I also saved enough to cover gaps in employment. During those gaps, I volunteered relentlessly with public sector archaeologists, in the lab, in the field, wherever. As a direct result of using my free time in that way, I was able to land a secure-ish job at a state archaeological repository and museum. Building skills and networking is an essential part of having a long term plan.”

“I have been a field tech for 5 years. I have a husband, a house, and a retirement account all solely based on my income as a tech. My husband is going back to school full time so I’m supporting both of us for the time being. Sure, some months are tight, but we still go out, still go on international vacations. You just have to be smart with your money. That being said, I definitely don’t plan on being in the field long term. I plan on going for my masters, hopefully gaining enough experience to work my way up in the ranks, or, depending on where my husband gets a job change gears entirely.”

It was also clear that you would have to diversify your skillset and network if you want to stay employed.

“Learn to survey, and learn to monitor. Our field has been far too tied up with the idea of “digging” for money. The real money is where the CRM firms get the big contracts, and the big contracts usually involve a lot more walking over land, and watching machines dig.”

“You’re going to need to market yourself. If you want work you need to find it. You will have as much money as you put forth the effort to find and pursue work until you build up enough connections and solid work performances to be invited back. People who have any sort of business savvy should utilize those skills.

“Always be on the lookout for new opportunities. Be the first to volunteer to do the work that others in your crew are hesitant to do and go the extra mile….Be creative and draw upon your resourcefulness. It is definitely challenging at first, but being proactive will pay off.

No one can stay in out in the field forever

While many techs that commented on this thread were over 50 years old, it was clear that few field techs were still out in the field in their 50s and 60s. Planning your next career move was emphasized:

“The primary point is that being solely an excavator in the field of archaeology without an advance degree is rarely a viable career. It is usually a job that then leads to a career in cultural resources management. To make a living wage and to have the benefit and comforts of stability may very well require that one moves beyond the art of digging holes, and into the science of understanding and managing resources.”

“If you are interested in the general profession of CRM the best thing you can do -in addition to being a good field archaeologist – is learn the regs [regulations] and learn how to write the reports we write.”

Most techs emphasized the fact that you would have to move up in seniority if you wanted to keep doing archaeology in old age. Networking was not only important for getting your first job, it was also considered essential for keeping your career alive:

“Most of all, I would say getting your foot in the door requires building experience and your resume. The best way I see to do this is looking for an opportunity to intern at the university you attend or a museum. If you choose an academic institution that has a good arch program, they should have opportunities. Secondly, once you have some experience, start pursuing opportunities to work in the field. By the time you graduate, you should have a good idea of whether you want to make archaeology your career.”

“I think 90% of field techs need to work on their social skills and figure out a way to network themselves. You cannot expect to get a full time job, or at least steady employment being anti-social and not making connections. In my experience, most field techs I’ve worked with wait for something to come along, and never become proactive with their future endeavors. If you want something to happen, make it happen

“Do not get into the groove where you are just couch surfing until you cannot dig anymore. Marry someone that do something else so that their money can pay for the house. If I may add, use your months off from doing archaeology to work in another job elsewhere to boost your saving instead of having a vacation. Don’t just be a shovel bum but instead try to learn every aspect of archaeology you can.

“Honestly, it’s all about timing, presentation of yourself, and being willing to do pretty much anything and everything your boss asks you (unless there is an ethical issue, of course).

Is Education the Answer?

There was an awareness of the fact that despite the fact most archaeologists have a college degree (even field techs), few university programs tell them what they can expect after graduation. Most CRMers graduate with little knowledge of how the consulting industry works or what they should expect:

“A large part of the problem IMHO is with field school. I think the concept of field school is fantastic. Unfortunately many students don’t attempt a field school until part-way or mostly through their bachelors. To compound issues most of these field schools provide very little insight into the world of CRM, specifically phase 1 survey through the shit thicket/poison ivy/swamps etc. I think our best bet is public awareness and to continue to cultivate the importance of cultural resources in the minds of today’s youth.”

“I do think the schools could have a guest speaker or something to help prepare the young, eager, and impressionable kids coming into this world. I know I would have benefitted from it.

Is this problem specific to archaeology?

The difficulty of maintaining a career as an archaeological field tech was consistently noted. Occasionally, it was acknowledged that the problem of finding a steady job as a twenty-something journeyman was not limited to CRM archaeology:

“Most of the financial troubles hit when I was about the age of most of my tech’s. I doubt that the financial troubles for a young arch tech are much different than that of any other person with an undergraduate degree just getting started. Life is what happens to you while you are planning for your future. If life carries you down the road to an archaeological career fine. If the road deviates from that path, follow it. You can always get back.

This blog was created as a forum for discussing the realities of being a cultural resource management archaeologist but it does not operate in a vacuum. There are dozens of other relevant conversations about the industry floating throughout journal articles, blogs, and social media. If you want to know what it’s like to be a CRM archaeologist, it only makes sense to ask a CRMer. I strongly encourage you to join the North American Archaeological Technicians or the Archaeo Field Techs Facebook groups if you have a Facebook account. You should can also get information by following CRM archaeology-related Twitter conversations (#CRMarch or #archaeology) or searching for interesting blogs on the “Great Archaeology Blogs” list on Doug’s Archaeology.

Finally, let’s keep the conversation going. How can you create a durable career as a cultural resource management archaeological field technician? Is it even possible?

Write a comment below or join those great Facebook archaeology groups so you can comment on the original thread.

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