Archaeological Fieldwork

Fieldwork is the foundation of archaeological research. As such, the archaeologists that perform the fieldwork are the muscle, sweat, and backbone of all archaeological projects.

Job positions for archaeologists that work in the field include field technician, crew chief, and field director. Field technicians perform the majority of the fieldwork, while crew chiefs and field directors serve as their supervisors.

The first professional job that an archaeologist usually obtains is that of a field technician (also known as a shovelbum). The majority of field technician jobs are temporary, generally lasting anywhere from several days to several months. Most field technicians will work for multiple cultural resource management firms and/or the federal government during their career, traveling frequently around the country from one project to the next.

Due to the nature of the work, one of the primary concerns for field technicians is where they will live while on the road. The answer to this question depends on the project budget and the employer. Some employers will only hire local applicants in order to avoid the housing question altogether, while others might put their workers up in a motel and provide them with a weekly allowance for food and other necessities, known as per diem.

We asked one long-time field technician, Andrew Peim, about the tricky business of housing in his career. “I think I’ve experienced every housing option that’s out there for field technicians,” he explained. “From staying in nice hotels and government quarters, to camping or being paid per diem to find my own housing. It can be frustrating, but it can also be a huge part of the adventure in being an archaeologist!”

Job Responsibilities

Field technicians are responsible for conducting the majority of the fieldwork involved in archaeological investigations. Depending on the nature of the project, technicians are generally responsible for such essential tasks as:

  • Conducting surveys
  • Excavation
  • Artifact identification and/or collection
  • Taking field notes
  • Mapping
  • Photography
  • Collecting soil samples

Depending on one’s level of training and experience, a technician might also be commissioned to perform such additional tasks as collecting information using global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technologies or helping to create a map using a total transit station.

While crew chiefs and field directors may generally perform the same tasks as field technicians, they also have larger responsibilities. Such responsibilities include:

  • Supervising the crew(s)
  • Assisting in developing and carrying out a research design
  • Proofreading technicians’ paperwork for errors and omissions
  • Contributing to archaeological reports

Education and Training Requirements

Most employers require their field technicians to have completed an accredited field school and to hold a bachelor’s degree in anthropology or a related field, such as history. Crew chiefs and field directors generally must have a master’s degree in anthropology, and/or a significant amount of fieldwork and supervisory experience.

Field workers must also be prepared for physical labor. Some projects may require individuals to hike up to fifteen miles a day through arduous terrain and inclement weather. In addition, the work often requires long days of digging dirt and lifting heavy tools and buckets of soil to get the job done.

Salary and Advancement Opportunities

Because archaeology field technicians typically work temporary jobs, they are usually paid wages rather than salary and almost never receive benefits. For this same reason, technician pay rates are not very reliable. Wages vary based on a variety of factors, including project location, company, budget, and type of contract (e.g., private or federal). According to an article published by the Society for American Archaeology in 2008, the national average pay rate for field technicians was $12.37 per hour, the lowest rate being $10.00 per hour and the highest being $21.00 per hour.

Field technicians that hold only a bachelor’s degree have a great deal of difficulty advancing in the archaeological world. But with increased education and experience, the sky is the limit. They may move on to lower-level supervisory roles, such as crew chief or field director, they may become the head archaeologist for the National Park Service, or they may become a professor at a university. It all depends on where they want their careers to go after landing their first archaeological job.

Employment Outlook

Archaeological fieldwork is expected to increase significantly in the coming years due to the projected increase of general construction across the country. As a result, field technicians, crew chiefs, and field directors will be in high demand in order to determine the potential impact of construction projects on archaeological and historical sites.

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