Remedying the Plight of the Archaeological Technician

mafia_thenounprojectI’ve been keeping a keen eye on the Facebook Group “North American Archaeological Tech Forum”. Conversations on there are lively and cover a lot of relevant topics that matter to cultural resource management archaeologists across the country. One particular conversation regarding professionalism has sent some shockwaves through the group, garnering over 120 comments since August 18, 2014. The group manager asked: “How can we increase professionalism among CRM archaeology technicians?” and “Do arch techs need their own professional group?” I parroted this question to my LinkedIn group the Archaeology Careerist’s Network a few days later and the CRM Archaeology Podcast’s host Chris Webster asked the president of the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) if that organization was interested in enrolling field techs in the RPA.

The responses unanimously agreed that field techs are in need of some behavioral modifications (stop drinking so much and smoking weed), but many came to the conclusion that things will not improve unless wages are increased and job stability is achieved. I believe this is only part of the solution. In fact, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, has actually given us an explanation of exactly how we can remedy the plight of the archaeological field technician.

Words of wisdom found in the song “Funky President”

In addition to being solid, bad ass funk, James Brown’s music carried a lot of political messages meant to improve the plight of African Americans who, ironically, have a lot in common with archaeological field technicians. While very few archaeologists can go around chanting “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” without turning heads, many of Brown’s tunes strike a chord with archaeologists who have been called “the blue collar members of the scientific community.” Few archaeologists were born into grinding poverty in the rural south and grew up hustlin’ to get by like Brown. Even fewer of us have gone on to become funk superstars (Somebody please tell me of a successful archaeologist-turned-music superstar. I’d love to buy her/his album.) But, all archaeologists can groove and dig to his music. I know I have dug unmeasurable cubic meters of earth while listening to James Brown’s music.

One James Brown song, in particular, reminded me of the plight of archaeo techs and the cultural resource management industry in general: Funky President. For those of you that don’t know, check it out:



Stock market goin’ up. Jobs goin’ down. Ain’t no funkin job to be found.Funky President, James Brown (1974).

The Wikipedia entry for the song is sparse considering the fact that Funky President has been sampled by a mountain of hip hop artists. The Wikipedia simply remarks that Brown wrote this song in the wake of the Gerald Ford presidency of the mid-1970s, a period in U.S. history that mirrors the current Great Recession we’re all familiar with.

From what my parents have told me, the mid-70’s sucked for most Americans, especially young people looking to start careers and families. Stagflation was the word of the day. Jobs were scarce. Layoffs and outsourcing was in full effect. Inflation was over 10%. President Nixon and Vice President Agnew were crooks. Ford assumed the presidency without even being voted in only to lose the election to Carter. He’s lucky to have even made it to the elections given the fact that the Californians tried to solve the country’s woes with violence. He survived two assassination attempts in less than one full term. The Beetles had broken up, disco was on the rise, and the Black Panthers couldn’t even help us out of this dilemma.

From what I understand, the 1970s mirror the 2010s in so many ways:

— The mantra “Work hard, go to college, get a steady job” wasn’t working out.

— The rich appeared to keep getting richer.

— Most of the popular movies and music was sh*tty.

— We weren’t reinvesting in our country. Stuff was falling apart (Urban Renewal and Three Mile Island anyone?)

— Americans were doing a lot of soul searching.

What are we going to do?” seemed to be the cry of the 1970s. That sounds a lot like the questions posted on the North American Archaeological Tech Forum. What are we arch technicians going to do about the fact that CRM companies are selling out to big “environmental solutions” firms; the race to the bottom has resulted in a situation where techs are sleeping in their cars and being cheated out of drive time by employers across the country; and corporate colleges are cranking out degrees rather than functional archaeologists?

James Brown says we need to embrace the Protestant Work Ethic and capitalist spirit. We need to start doing things for ourselves.

Let’s get together, get some land. Raise our food like the man. Save our money like the mob. Put up our factories?? on the jobFunky President, James Brown (1974).

As with every good James Brown song, certain lines are partially incomprehensible. I don’t know what Brown is saying we should do on the job, but you can understand the jest of what the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness is trying to say here. We need to pool our resources, start some businesses, and start doing things for ourselves.

This is going to require a whole new vision of what it means to be an archaeological technician. Not everyone is going to be on board, especially archaeo technicians that have a much more narrow, traditionalist view of what that job entails. Few will be willing to do things for themselves. Like most good college students, many archaeologists’ imaginations and self-confidence has been eviscerated by the educational system. Most of us are more afraid of failure than success; more afraid of being wrong or second-guessed than falling down time and time again until they learn how to get the job done right. We’re going to have to look at other business models outside the cultural resource management establishment including, perhaps, the mafia.

I don’t know if this will work, but I know cultural resource management won’t have any college-trained technicians if things keep going the way they currently are. CRM companies are going to start filling up vanloads of “technicians” from the gaggle of unemployed construction workers milling about outside the local Home Depot if we don’t start showing them the value of a good archaeo tech.

Here are some tips that could help:

1)            Don’t expect anyone in the establishment to help you out— Those who have forged successful careers in CRM archaeology cannot be relied upon to help you think outside of the box. The way our forebears did it won’t work anymore. We can’t just chug some beers on a Thursday night with the crew chief while talking about Binford’s optimal foraging strategy and get hired on the crew come Friday morning. We can’t dig in cutoffs and halter tops anymore. Now, we have safety meetings.  The industry is more formal, rigid, but ripe for innovation from people that are not part of the status quo.

SOLUTION: Look to other places for inspiration. Cultural resource management is a business, so it’s a good idea to look toward what is being done in other businesses. Read Entrepreneur and Inc. magazines and marketing and finance books. Check out blogs and podcasts in other, unrelated industries. For instance, shows I regularly listen to include The New Man, the Smart Passive Income podcast, and The School of Greatness. These have nothing to do with CRMarch, which is why they’ve given me some excellent ideas that would not have come from hanging out with other CRMers.

2)            “You must unlearn what you have learned”— Ninety percent of the stuff you learned in college will not help you in CRM archaeology. Why? Because the motives for anthro departments and professors are different than they are in CRM. Anthro professors live in a different shark tank than cultural resources archaeologists. They MUST publish articles, do fieldwork on a seasonal basis at pre-selected sites, and mentor their students to do the same things they do. I love my professors, but their careers are based on different metrics than a CRMers career is. Coming in exactly on budget is a central priority for cultural resources archaeologists. So is making clients happy, finding more contracts, digging quickly and quietly, and doing what it takes to document a site before it enters oblivion.

I’m not saying university and CRM professors are different animals. I’m just saying they live in different environments. The things that earn you high marks and accolades in school are not going help you much in CRM, so you’re going to need to learn new skills.

SOLUTION: We need a parallel educational system that will help you learn the skills necessary to be a CRMer. It doesn’t exist right now. We’re going to have to build this together. Aside from the few CRM-focused Master’s degrees, we will have to build a system that teaches the skills required to be a CRM archaeologist. This system has to be based on the experiences of CRMers, needs to be low-cost, and has to be available to all. It will also be an unprecedented, grass roots project.

3)            It will cost money— Sometimes I’m amazed when people ask for a free copy of the eBooks Succinct Research sells for $4.99. I’m even more amazed when other archaeologists recommend we give away our skills, labor, and experience for free (#freearchaeology anyone?). These requests and suggestions almost always come from people that have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for a college degree that didn’t prepare them for the workforce, dropped thousands more on esoteric academic press books, and will end up paying off this tab for decades. How do you plan on making money if you give your services away? Why are you willing to pay $5 for a beer or coffee drink at Starbucks but won’t pay $5 for information that can help you for years to come? What are your priorities?

This may sound like caustic complaining, but it reflects the values most archaeologists have about their careers. They’d rather spend money on something that MIGHT help them or makes them feel better (temporarily) instead of something that WILL help them.

Creating a CRM-specific education system will take time and money. Courses and books that help bridge the gap between college and career will cost money. Keeping these sources of knowledge flowing will also cost money. Some of this may come from grants or CRM companies that care about continuing professional education, but most of it must come from the people that need it.

SOLUTION: Rather than spending all of your money on organic field snacks, beer, and overpriced outdoor gear, invest some of it in continuing education. I know you’re poor. I know your job is temporary. I know times are hard out there. I know these things because I am currently in your shoes. A $5 book or $200 online course is a pittance if it helps further your career and leads to paychecks worth many times that amount. These resources need to be created if we want to turn college graduates into professional archaeologists.

4)            Get some land and raise food for yourself— We will have to start our own businesses and organizations. CRM companies are businesses. CRM clients are businesses. Many of these entities are corporations who have an incentive to pay for things, including the services of other businesses, because corporations are taxed on profits rather than expenses. Archaeological technicians have much more to offer than cheap labor. We are intelligent human beings that care about the future of the human race. We were also born and raised in a capitalist society and are thoroughly familiar with basic economics.

Archaeological technicians: If you want career stability, you will have to diversify your income streams. You will need to figure out ways to fill your monetary needs in times of unemployment/underemployment. Starting your own business (AKA side hustle) is one way to do that.

Dr. Claude Anderson has a lot to say about how to build economic wealth. He focuses on the African American community, but his basic strategy will do much to help archaeological technicians. I may not agree with everything Dr. Anderson advises but the basics of his economic strategy is proven and sound:



You can also learn about growing a side hustle from Rosetta Thurman at Happy Black Woman.

SOLUTION: Think of a service or product the world needs. Create something to fill that need. It’s even better if you figure out something the CRM archaeology industry needs and fix that deficit (Think R. Joe Brandon of ShovelBums, LLC).

5)            Think like a Mafioso? Really? DISCLAIMER: I am not suggesting that anyone should do anything illegal. Do not break the law. I also do not endorse violence, especially killing people, or thievery. I do not recommend anyone try to do anything a mob gangster would do. I repeat: Do not ACT like a mobster.

However, I believe, sometimes, it’s okay to THINK like a mobster.

Why think like a mobster? Because Mafiosos think outside the box. They don’t wait for somebody to show them how to make money. They see a moneymaking opportunity and just start doing stuff to fill their pockets. They also tend to create whole syndicates— multiple interconnected “businesses” that bring in money from diverse streams, including legitimate ones. Creating a syndicate is an excellent way to spread risk and maximize the potential for profits.

The mob operates in the illegal informal economy, but I think archaeological technicians need to start working in the legal informal economy— the world of freelancing. There are also dozens of other lessons archaeologists can learn from a Mafioso. Check out the book “Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman” by Louis Ferrante if you want to know more.

Saving the archaeological technician will require ingenuity, creativity, and persistence. There is no precedent for solving the unemployment needs of semi-skilled professionals like archaeo techs because it has never really been done. Fortunately, our work can’t be outsourced because companies need real life human beings to identify and dig archaeological sites. But, the work of archaeo techs has been devalued because it’s considered something less than what a RPA-eligible archaeologist does. This is not entirely true. CRM would not exist if it wasn’t for the techs. Also, archaeo techs evolve into project managers and PIs, so it’s in the industry’s best interest to grow the best technicians possible. Nevertheless, the work of technicians is considered a commodity, which is not good because the market seeks to acquire commodities at the lowest price possible.

Some companies will always treat techs poorly. These are usually the lowballing, “bottom line über alles” companies that really don’t care about heritage management anyway. Those companies will always have a tough time creating quality products because their employees will always be marginal or unexperienced. They will have a hard time attracting or keeping skilled employees.

We need to quantify the financial benefit of hiring quality archaeological technicians and sell this concept to CRM companies that care about providing a quality service and product. The value of a good tech comes in money saved as well as money earned. Good techs do things better, faster, and, ultimately, cheaper because they make fewer mistakes, have a much shorter learning curve, and are more efficient. Cultural resources companies that value doing quality work aren’t afraid to invest in their own employees or paying a little more for people that know what they’re doing.

Our main problem is employment stability. It’s hard to keep techs employed when there’s no work around. That’s why companies need to hire techs that have profitable side hustles or can provide value-added services that make the CRM company better (website design, blogging, editing, desktop publishing, eBook creation and publication, building social media campaigns, accounting and marketing skills, ect.). These folks are worth more than the wages they earn.

SOLUTION: If you are an archaeological technician, start learning a skill that you can turn into a side hustle. None of us knows what we’re doing in the beginning, but, through trial, error, blood, sweat and tears, we can create success for ourselves. “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those that draw maps, not those who follow them.” Seth Godin, Poke the Box.

Archaeological technicians will have to do things for themselves. We will have to pool our resources and create the educational materials and outlets you need. You will have to think outside the box and strive to create avenues that will earn money for yourselves and for the companies you work for. Nobody has ever tried this before. Nobody will ever be able to do it the same way again.

The choice is yours: Keep living in roach motels for weeks at a time and bringing tupperwares full of the motel’s free breakfast to the field for lunch or start changing your lot in life.

As James Brown would say: “Turn on your funk motor. I know it’s tough. Turn on your funk motor. Until you get enough…

The plight of the archaeological technician is a real concern. The Baby Boomers are retiring. They need somebody to fill their shoes, which means the field directors of today will be getting promotions and today’s field techs will be promoted as well. Who is going to fill their shoes? Who will become the next generation of field technicians?

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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