When cultural resource management archaeology makes you happy

Here's how archaeology can bring happinessI don’t know why, but I’ve been feeling happier the last few days even though I’m in the middle of preparing for my comprehensive exams for my anthropology PhD. Comps is supposed to be one of the most stressful experiences in any graduate student’s life but it really has not been that bad. Perhaps I’m ignorant of what’s about to happen in the near future, but prepping for comps has been a lot less stressful than the cultural resource management archaeology projects I’ve done in the past.

Maybe I’m not as stressed out as I should be. But, when you’ve watched your career come close to the brink over a major mistake on a CRM project, reading a few hundred books and writing a few dozen pages just is not that scary. Or, perhaps I’m feeling the good mojo of my monthly goal of doing metta meditations every day this month. Meditation has a way of creeping into your mind and changing the way you feel. It happens overnight once you start and continues working as long as you keep practicing. We can talk about that later someday.

I don’t know how it happened but I have been spending the last few days thinking about the times I felt good because I was an archaeologist. It’s easy to focus on the negative stuff: lowballed projects, difficulties keeping a full-time job, the incredible odds against working as an archaeologist, and the rough work conditions.

We simply do not spend enough time thinking about how lucky we are to be archaeologists and all of the times when doing archaeology truly made us happy. I’ve been doing archaeology for over a decade and only now did I spend some time thinking about the good that comes from cultural resource management archaeology.

We are Explorers

You may not have dug in the Yucatan or in Egypt, but every CRMer gets paid to explore the world around them. Remember when you:

— Stepped out of the truck in a totally new place, the cool, humid air nipping at your ears. Think about the sound of birds you’ve never heard before singing softly through the trees as you reach for your backpack.

Briskly walking through the morning dew, you took a swig of your coffee as you walk to the location of your first shovel probe of the day.

— Stood at the baggage carousel waiting for your hefty internal frame backpack to drop down the conveyor before making its way to you. The flight was long. Your seat was small and uncomfortable, but here you are. You’re going to grab your bag then rendezvous with the rest of the crew before heading to the car rental kiosks.

It’s time to do another survey, but this time you got to fly rather than drive. The novelty of flying to a jobsite never gets old.

— Even though you know it’s going to be hotter than hell in a few hours, you can’t help but notice how still and silent the desert is right before sunup. No birds yet. No wind. Just a reddish purple glow on the horizon as the sun comes to meet you again like an old frenemy.

— We all know how important it is to enjoy a chilled alcoholic beverage after a hard day of digging. You walk into the only bar in that run-down, one-horse town near the job site. Rather than cringing and thinking you’re a homeless scalawag looking for a handout, the bartender doesn’t even blink when you and your muck-coated, Carhartt-wearing comrades take a seat at the bar.

Even though, today, it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes inside the bar, you can still smell that musty tobacco mildew as soon as you settle down. It’s happy hour. No microbrews here. Just cold Busch Light and a bowl of stale mini-pretzels.

Fortunately, it’s happy hour. Two-dollar drafts for the next couple hours. Looks like you can be generous tonight. “Drinks are on me,” you say enthusiastically.

The Thrill of Discovery

Exploration brings us to new places where people of all sorts already know about. Archaeology also gives us a chance to see things that, literally, nobody has seen in centuries—millennia in some instances. Remember when you:

  • Found your first flake in a shovel probe.
  • Recovered your first projectile point or prehistoric decorated ceramic sherd
  • Learned how to date an artifact scatter by reading the code on the base of an Owens-Illinois bottle
  • Got to dig your first pithouse, teepee ring, colonial-era trash deposit, or privy
  • Found your first archaeological feature based on a historical map overlay
  • Worked at a site where you got to hold Archaic or Paleoindian artifacts
  • Realized that these prehistoric features were made by people just like you. Folks who had families, jobs, kids, skills, and dreams. Human beings who felt pain, hunger, love, fear, excitement, and contentment just like you do.
  • Found your first toy and realized that, just like today, children were part of our society. You realized sites weren’t made only by adults. Kids dug features, made artifacts, and added to the archaeological record.
  • Noticed that, even though you weren’t making six-figures, you had the kind of job that makes you happy whereas your friends who all went to business school, studied engineering, or went to college for something sensible absolutely hate going to work every single morning.

Achievement is what keeps us going

Nobody pats a cultural resource management archaeologist on the back for what we contribute to society. The general public has no idea what we do. They think we spend our days gallivanting around the world worrying about snakes and finding buried treasures (I wonder why?) Our clients see us as another burden—an impediment towards their progress (i.e. making as much money with as little effort as possible).

The news regularly reports the dollar value of our projects. We’ve all grabbed a newspaper to read the coverage of our project only to see; “The County spent $365,000 on archaeology, which was mandated by law.” We found the earliest evidence of agriculture in the state but the newspaper targeted in on the cost of our services without scrutinizing how much money in tax breaks were given to the developer just to build the subdivision.

Nevertheless, CRMers occasionally see the fruits of our labor in various ways. Our achievements build up over the course of our careers but we rarely take the time to sit back and think about what we’ve done. Thinking about these achievements makes us feel good. They keep us going for the long haul. Think about how it felt when you:

  • Told your parents you’d gotten a full-time job doing archaeology, which was something they never thought would happen.
  • Got the first paycheck you’d earned by doing archaeology.
  • Got promoted to crew chief.
  • Contributed to a proposal that actually landed your company some work.
  • Paid for part of your wedding or put a down payment on a house from a savings account that had been accumulated because of all the shovel probes you’d dug.
  • Impressed a guy/girl at a party by telling them what you do for a living.
  • Amazed a group of schoolchildren when you told them about how archaeological sites are created and why they’re important to preserve.
  • Worked on a project where a significant archaeological site was found and the developer realized it was easier to redesign the project in order to avoid the ancient Native American village than it was to dig up somebody’s ancestors in order to build their generic strip mall.
  • Heard a client say, “Thank you for telling me what you guys found out there. I had no idea that kind of history was right here underneath my feet.
  • Went to an end-of-fieldwork party provided by a descendant community, tribe, or preservation group because they wanted to thank you for everything you’d done for them.

All CRMers live charmed lives

I started college as a marketing major. That lasted a single day because my first business class sucked so badly that I changed my major to anthropology on the first day of school. That was 19 years ago.

I can’t tell you how many times I woke up only to realize that I was going to have to go out on a project that I really didn’t want to do. Sometimes the client was a truly sinister, earth-plundering, profiteering firm that didn’t give a rip about culture, history, heritage, or the environment. My work was going to help them destroy a little piece of our world. Sometimes the weather was horrible. Waking up before the sun just so I can dig shovel probes for 10 hours in the pouring rain or wander across the searing desert in the summer hoping we all make it back to the Jeep before getting sunstroke. Other times I even had to leave my wife and kids to do these things. Archaeology sometimes caused me to miss birthdays, holidays, and school concerts, which didn’t make me too happy.

In all, being a cultural resource management archaeologist is like making it to the NFL (without the million-dollar contracts, or the fame, or the chance to make it to the Super Bowl, or the extreme physical fitness regimen. Actually, except for feeling like you got in a car accident at the end of the day, archaeology isn’t like the NFL). We may not know it but we are blessed to have the opportunity to do this job. There are many who dream of being an archaeologist, but there are very few who actualize this dream. I know the hardship of doing archaeology for a living, but devoting some time every now and then thinking about the many times archaeology has made you happy really does help the medicine go down. The struggle is real.

The next time depression over your career decision starts getting you down I suggest you think about the things you’ve done as an archaeologist that have truly made you happy. Wake up in the morning. Look at yourself in the mirror before work and realize, “I did it. I’m an archaeologist.” Then, smile.

Take a few minutes to congratulate yourself if you’re an archaeologist. If you aren’t, IM, email, or call an archaeologist and tell them to do so. Or, write a comment below or send me an email.

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